Some days ago, I was in a negative mood. Events that we thought could never happen have happened. Out of the balcony, there were sounds of ambulances all the time. Milan: my Milan was silent.
During that moment, I decided that the only way forward is to believe in the future. I want to live my best for the moment and stop living in the past.
The day after, I decided to ask business leaders from my network to give me their overview and perspective of the crisis. I decided to use this moment to advise them. I decided to use this moment to learn from them.
The interview is part of the "Bouncing Back from Adversity" series created by my dear colleague Ricky Foo from Singapore and it is the first one made in Italy.
I had my first interview on Friday (April 17) with Mr Andrea Guerra, Managing Director of Bystronic Tube Processing. He is the Head of a Company that develops and manufactures 2D and 3D laser cutting systems for the processing of pipes and profiles. The company is part of Bystronic Group, a Swiss Corporation present worldwide. Tube Processing is located near Brescia, one of the areas most affected by COVID-19.
Here are the excerpts from our interview:
Q: Hello Andrea, thank you for your time. We found ourselves living the unthinkable.
A: Hello Giuseppe, certainly an extraordinary event. We experienced this pandemic after our plant, originally an Italian reality, was acquired and integrated into the Bystronic Group. We immediately had a clear idea of what was going on.
Q: How soon did you have a clear idea?
A: What happened here in Italy was partly experienced by my colleagues in China. I remember that already in December of last year, during a meeting, one of my colleagues came with the mask. At first, there was amazement, some laughed. Then we understood it. And it was a gradual escalation. It can't happen, I thought. And it happened.
Impact on the Operations
Q: How did the COVID-19 emergency impact your structure in Italy and how did it impact on Operations?
A: Our organisation employs 70 people. It is the Competence Center for R&D and production of tube lasers within the Bystronic Group, with headquarter in Switzerland. Our production activities stopped from March 22nd until after Easter. From this week, the logistic activity for the receiving goods and shipment is restarted. The processing activities on orders related to customers operating in strategic sectors are also restarted (for the agriculture sector). In all, today we have 10 people who are operating on a production area of about 10,000 square meters.
Q: How did you manage the acute phase of the emergency? I imagine that it wasn’t easy for your employees.
A: Absolutely not! However, I tried to give a direction of continuity with respect to what we have done in the past. Where possible, I tried to anticipate actions aimed at maximising safety even further. Now, with an organisation of 70 employees, we have zero cases of people affected.
Focus on the service / leave the unnecessary and come back to the real value
Q: How are your customers reacting (e.g. slowing down decision making, buying less, stopping projects)? What’s your strategy?
A: We are part of a group that is one of the worldwide leaders in the sheet metal working sector. Certainly, the numbers in the first quarter are falling compared to last year. However, considering the total blackout, the numbers are not disastrous. Naturally, we have to be ready for a new start.
Q: Yes, but how to start again?
A: My team and I, we want to be the solutions provider number one for our customers. We are very committed to providing the best level of services to our customers.
Q: Andrea, I remember that when I started as a young recruiter, the companies operating in your sector sold the machines and almost provide service for free. Now, in a certain sense, there are almost opposite dynamics and yes, I agree with you, it is the service that makes the difference. But now how can you talk about service with your customers if the machines are closed in the sheds?
A: True, the machines are in the sheds, but the other activities are going on. We are working from home with digital tools. Indeed, in some aspects we are now even more focused.
Q: Give me a concrete example of what you are supporting.
A: Here it is: about ten days ago we performed the acceptance test of our latest generation machine for a customer located in the Czech Republic. Due to the COVID-19’s restriction, we did it by video call. We were connected in a video conference with the customer and our colleagues from the local branch. The customer, after an hour and a half of connection, was happy to see the machine working and the acceptance test has passed.
Q: How many things are we learning? Could we have thought of doing such a thing until 3 weeks ago?
A: Absolutely not. And I tell you more. Of course, some customers have slowed down the orders, but others have also increased the request for remote demos. I have the feeling that, in an exceptional and rough situation like this, we are given the opportunity to get rid of all that is unnecessary and to come back to the real value of things. And many of these things can be done often even from a distance.
Global Pandemic because of a Global Economy?
Q: This is a strange time. There are people who preach the return to strong men leadership. There are people who say that the cause of this pandemic is to be found in the global market and in globalisation. What do you think about it?
A: I think the epidemic has spread because the market is global. But this is an aspect that must not in the least question the advantage of being part of a larger system. We are reacting well because we combine Italian craftsmanship and creativity with Swiss credibility and reliability. The global economy is a value for many Italian companies.
Q: In Italy, there is a return to nationalism and localism. European Union seems absent. Are you worried about this?
A: No, not worried. I think we are missing out another chance. We Italians are used to thinking that there will be no aid from abroad. Often the feeling is that European politicians make the attempts of entrepreneurs and companies less proficient.
The scenario for the next months?
Q: What scenario do you imagine for Q3 and Q4?
A: Difficult to predict. What we expect is an average effect of this wave. Right now, here in Italy, we are still fully staying at home. It will be many months of instability.
Managing the Fear
Q: Being able to manage the fears of employees is part of a manager's responsibility. But in this situation, fears are serious fears. Fears related to one's health or to the loved ones.
A: About this, I admit that at the beginning I said: "no, I'm not prepared". Then I tried to react, and I said to myself “I can't afford to think about it too much”. I must be focused on 100% protecting my loved ones and my employees. And finally, I thought I'm lucky to be in this situation and not much worse.
Advice for Leaders
Q: What is the direction for the future, Andrea? What do we take home from this experience and what do you suggest to the leaders of the future?
A: I suggest thinking about the fact that such a thing can happen again. Maybe in a different way. What we can try to do is create organisations where people are ready to change and evolve in terms of skills. People need to know that they can change, they can evolve. There are tools. We need now the willingness to consolidate what we started in these weeks. Leaders are asked not to think about “management” but to think more about “change management”.
From this dialogue, I learned that during hard times, going back to the essential without many frills can be the most important thing. I learned that if you are credible with your people during the emergency it is because you have been credible with them during the “normality”. I learned that during the crisis, creativity can allow you to do things you thought you could never do.