Carsales boss calls for technology focus to drive COVID recovery

Carsales Australia boss Ajay Bhatia says Australia should boost its focus and investment in the technology sector, making it one of four or five pillar industries for special attention to diversify the economy and turbocharge the recovery from the damaging COVID-19 recession.

Technology delivers crucial economic benefits such as productivity and high skilled, high paid jobs, Mr Bhatia said.

Carsales Australia boss Ajay Bhatia says more investment in technology could help accelerate Australia’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession.Credit:

"Every time we have a recession everywhere in the world we talk about let's invest in roads, let's invest in more construction. The modern infrastructure is not roads, it's digital infrastructure," he said.

Carsales, which runs online vehicle classified sites in Australia and overseas, is a local tech success story, with its stock price of $22.13 at Friday's close near all-time highs, for a market capitalisation of $5.5 billion.

"We've got to think about how do we invest over the next two years so when we come out of this we're not so dependent on just population growth and mining and agriculture. And we're a much more diversified economy. The tech business in my view is one of those ways to do that," he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

"Some of these (US tech) companies, Amazon, Facebook, they're larger than (national) economies. And why can't we produce some of these companies. Well I think there's hope here, because we have produced an Atlassian…we have produced a Carsales," he said.

Mr Bhatia said the recession had underscored the need for businesses to go online to reach customers and keep trading, adding that far too many weren't online.

More support was needed to get small businesses online, adding that they should assume COVID-19 could affect their operations for years.

"I feel we have to live with this COVID impact on the economy for the next couple of years at a bare minimum, no matter what anyone says," he said.

"Even if the vaccine's there, it takes time to implement…in that scenario we've got to start thinking about how do we trade as business in a COVID-friendly manner," he said.

"If we were able to give these small businesses grants to go online…whichever way is the best way to help them get online and to be able to trade online, I think that's the best gift we can give them," he said.

I think technology can really super-charge the recovery.

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell said research showed 40 per cent of Australian small businesses don’t have a website.

"There's 2.3 million trading businesses in Australia, about 2.2 million of those are small to medium businesses, so they're by far the majority of businesses in Australia and 40 per cent of them don’t even have a website," she said.

"Small businesses that are digitised are much more likely to grow and to employ, and in fact the sorts of figures are 30 per cent more likely to be growing and employing than those businesses that aren't. And the more digitised they are…they are significantly more likely to be more profitable. So it actually delivers growth, staff and profit," she said.

"I think technology can really super-charge the recovery," said Larry Diamond, co-founder and chief executive of the buy now, pay later provider Zip.

"What's been really interesting is that those businesses that have been more technology-enabled have been able to adapt really quickly and have seen extraordinary growth, while there have been a lot of industries that have really struggled," he said.

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