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Insights - episode 7
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Episode 8 - The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Building Industry

Roberta:  Welcome to this latest edition of Insights, where I Roberta Lepre from Weave Consulting the CSR specialists, together with my colleague Nadia, patch business strategies bring together insights and inspiration from our guests from the business community. And together, we discuss the strategies and the measures with which they are working to navigate through the challenges brought about by COVID-19. And how they are working to safeguard their businesses going forward. 

We'll come Nadia and welcome our guest today, Laura Parigi, from our neighboring country, Italy. Welcome. 

Laura:  Thank you. 

Roberta:  Italy has been one of the worst hit countries lower correct. 

Laura:  Yeah, right. Right. And we are based as a company in Lombardy, which is one of the regions with most cases as all the world now knows.

Roberta:  Yes. So maybe below or you can for the benefit of our viewers, you can give us a bit of background on who you are in your business. 

Laura:  Yeah, sure. So first of all, thank you to Nadia and Roberta for these invitation to insights webinar. And of course, thank you very much to all of you that will be listening to me today. 

As I said, my name is Laura Parigi, CEO of NPI Italia, a mechanical engineering company based in Italy, in Lombardy. We have two manufacturing sites in this region, and we are manufacturing flexible braided hoses there are since 1950. Since 2014, we started our cooperation with the Neopearl Group. A German-Swiss family owned a multinational with headquarter in Reinach-Basel. We entered into partnership with this group after a very long and strong cooperation as a supplier to this group. And what we are doing, we are manufacturing small components for plumbing and eating industries such as aerators that you can find in any tap, I can say, flow regulators, check valves and flexible hoses. 

We are present in 16 countries at the moment. And we are about 1800 people working for Neopearl in all continents. Our sales are mostly concentrated in Europe and Asia, and also in with a small part in North America, South America, Africa and Australia. And we can divide our customers into two main categories, industry OEM in the plumbing industries and trader and do it yourself stores. So this is a picture of our group. Yeah.

Roberta:  Laura and can you share a little bit of the trajectory that your business was taking before COVID? And whether this has changed with the onset of COVID-19?

Laura:  Yeah, sure. I mean, COVID-19 has a big impact in all the business which are linked to building industry because many of the projects were stopped. Some countries in which we operate especially Italy were affected by lockdowns, which were decided by the government and generally speaking all countries where we are selling our products or suffer the office slowdown of the demand of the market. 

In our company, of course, what we decided to do since the start was to realign our board strategy to the new situation. We have a board of directors composed by free executive including myself and the two independent members, one in representation of the Neoperla owners, and we decided with them that the first step to take since the first weekend of these emergency was to set up two task forces in our two plants. So that all our staff which is in Italy, over 140 people could see immediately, who was taking the lead in this situation, which is really very important for… and, first of all, so was to, to indicate, which were and I mean to train and to inform all the people about the measures to be implemented to contain the spreading of the virus, in order to be very effective in each in each location.

And, and then not to try to stay as more connected as we could. We are a company based, even before on a very effective communication with our people, but we want it to be even more effective. So first of all, we were in contact with all the other locations of the group, we set up a daily call at the beginning, which is now weekly, in this moment. 

But it was very important since the start to share the best practice coming from our Asian colleagues that already were experimenting since some weeks, the COVID emergency. So this was very important in order to not only apply the measures that our government was indicating to us, but also some extra measures that were coming from the direct experience of someone that was already fighting against this virus. 

Nadia:  So this was really strategic information of how this could basically, particularly apply to your situation, even though as you mentioned, Laura, your situation in Italy was slightly different than the one than the plants in the other countries.

Laura:  Yes. Yeah, this is true. I mean, it was important to be, we can say, seated at the same table, but at the same time, trying to consider all the different approaches of the different governments and try to understand which were the best practices to be put in place in every location. This was extremely needed. 

And we also decided, as a group to be connected directly with the owners, which was the first time for many of my, of my employees, to be in direct contact, also with the owners, which are executives themselves and involved in the daily business, even before the COVID-19 We downloaded the app on our phones, so that we could First of all, reach every employee in an emergency. And we could be directly connected. And then they could also be reassured that directly from the owners that posted videos on this app, about the involvement of the top management of the group in order to keep all our staff safe. And this was extremely important for the engagement of our staff.

Nadia:  What an interesting initiative, Roberta, I must admit when you share this with us Laura, it's extremely interesting to have not only having the daily calls, but doing something over and above to be able to engage all the employees together. And did you feel that this actually, this helped you to realign even more to have a face to a name to understand and to stand in it all together? A bit better?

Laura:  Yeah, initially, yes. Because you know, this is, of course, for anyone of our age, the first time that we are living in an emergency. And it was important to make everyone understand that everyone matters in this situation with his or her behaviour in order to keep the colleagues safe, but also their families and the relatives and friends. 

And, and today is still more important in a more, in a moment in which you know, we have a kind of relief now that since yesterday, we can move freely in all our country. It's important to keep people focused about social distancing to be kept, for instance, using the masks or when, when it's needed, using the gloves or if you're going to on public means of transport and things like that. It's very important, especially in this moment to have people on board. And this is done thanks to the fact that we had a transparent communication and an ongoing communication and especially we were two of us the HR Manager and the Safety Manager, were really at the people’s disposal 24 hours, seven days. 

And for them, it was a kind of, you know, new relation, but at the same new relationship at the same time, it was very, very important in this moment of discomfort, solitude, and so on, because the quarantine, you know, could be very different according to our mind-sets, but also to objective conditions. And when we close down because of the indication of the government was to close down factories, and we were in, in a very strict lockdown situation, it was important to keep moving and to get to the people connected, even if the company was shut down for some days.

Roberta:  This is a theme that has emerged the last day now, the difference in the different sessions of insights that we've had, it keeps emerging this idea of transparency, effective communication and employee engagement, which can be rather abstract terms sometimes. So this is an excellent case study of how these theoretical principles in practice, and seeing how they actually work as well, the fact that it's not just wishful thinking, but these are stretching strategies which do work.

Laura:  Yeah, yeah, you're right. And, you know, one. Another best practice that we tried to implement.  When you're thinking about a mechanical engineering companies small or medium sized, like we are in in Italy. Generally speaking, you don't associate with the, with the image of such a company, people working from home, which was something that was segregated, I can say to a few managers before the COVID. And now is affecting 98% of our white collars. And we were organizing these way of working with the great support of our central it from Germany, and from our local IT in a few really few working days. 

And it was extremely important, first of all, to get to stay connected with suppliers and customers while we were closed for lockdown. And even afterwards, because as in many countries, also in Italy, the schools were closed and, and all the students were attending online courses, so they were at home. And if you have a teenager, good, maybe they are even smarter than we are with the technologies. But if you have small kids, it's a different story. So our workers, white collars, were very happy to be in a condition to be productive at home, and at the same time to share a you know, the possibility to have the possibility to support even their kids at the same time. So it was a good and it was a good moment also for them to understand that the company was supporting them even more than before. And this is something that I guess will change our work our way of doing our job but also…

Nadia:  That was going to be my next question Laura. Do you think that this initiative because obviously it's a very good initiative, we're seeing we receive a lot of questions, why do we need to communicate Why is it so important? The government is sending messages we are sending messages, but as Roberta mentioned through each and every Insight program, this was highlighted throughout the communication with suppliers the communication with costs with customers with other stakeholders, but also internally. So how do you see this evolving? Will you keep this in? Will you nurture this initiative and fosters even further? You already mentioned that perhaps the frequency of the meetings will change because a weekly update will do?

Laura:  Yeah, you know, I think that there will be a two of these situations I can say that will be for sure part of our new normal life business life in the future. 

Homeworking which will be you know, tailor made according to the situation that we will have in the future. And the same time odd calls, the webinars and the meetings that we had, I mean, they will not disappear from a day to another. First of all, because till today, we are banned from traveling overseas. So we will continue both as a group and as a company to be in touch with the team's goals or other platforms, with our colleagues, which are overseas, and customers. And then even in the future, I guess, also, because of these environmental needs that we have to give our contribution to these causes, we will think really deeply in the future, if we have to travel again, as we did in the past, using airplanes using trains, or wood or cars, or whatever, I think we will think twice before traveling again, with the same frequency as it was in the past. So these are two things that will affect in the future, our daily business. 

And then last but not least, I would like to mention an opportunity that we have as a company during these COVID-19 period, which is the networking I mean, we as women, we like very much networking with our women in business with men, with associations and, and so on. And together with other free CEOs, entrepreneurs of smaller companies located in my area, we looked at our production and we try to understand if we could combine our offers and our products. And at the end, we came out with these For Women For One project, which came from the fact that the two of us converted the business unit in their production to make products we can be useful in this emergency. 

So one lady that is working in light carpentry for any industrial user since ever I can say because it's a very historical company in our in our area, decided that she could manufacture also freestanding displays for detergents. And other one converted one of his business units for the production of a Plexiglas dividing walls. And we put on these small catalogue I can say like a leaflet, our aerators that our headquarters are manufacturing in Germany, because of course we are using, we have to be honest, we are using water more than before because we are on our hands. I don't know how many times a day. But it's also very important to save water. So we have these aerators with a tool inside that allows us to have the same flow the water, but at the same time keeping the pressure at the always the same level. So it's important because we save water while we are using it. And we have also some aerators for dedicated to hospitals and the health care buildings that you can change periodically according to the different colours. And so we have a story to tell. 

And in the fourth, of course was a lady that has a communication agency because we needed to be promoted a little bit. And she also has the idea to use one of his supplier to manufacturers stickers that you can put on the floor with the footprint of shoes to keep the social distancing in common places, like for instance, changing rooms, or, you know, brake areas or lunch areas where a lot of people normally are crowded. And now you know that we have to keep these two meters social distance. And so we put the fourth... And, you know, it's also something that linked to the fact of you know, being a bit proactive in doing networking.

Nadia:  So with every down downtime as well, or a little bit of a mishap, so to speak, you find the opportunity to create something new, will you continuing this his initiative Laura?

Laurra:  Yes, because we are only at the start and with the passing of time we are having other ideas. So I think that this is like a new-born, small start-up that could have a future, Yeah.

Roberta:  We were saying how this innovation has emerged was you were all also individually dealing with a crisis within your established organizations and yesterday, I was talking to someone who's said “We are at our, at our most creative, when our when we find ourselves with our backs to the wall”. And this reminds me of this. So you know, in times of times of challenges, we tend to come up with new ideas, new solutions. So..

Laura:  Yeah, this is true. I mean, these came, some ideas came out also from the difficulty that we have at the start in Italy to find detergents, for instance, to find this place, everything, of course, was prioritized for hospitals and, and healthcare structures. So there was also these, these need. It’s true in difficult times, we can be more creative. And it depends, of course, as we were discussing with Nadia before, from the situation in which we are, we can have different mind-set, because we know that there will be hard times anyhow, for many, and because it's clear, we are coming out from a lockdown period from a very slowdown of the market. And we are trying to put the forces together. Again, the beginning, the aim was only to stay safe, and to give products to the people that can help companies and people to stay safe. But maybe in the future, this will evolve into something different, we hope.

Nadia:  Because once we've discussed Roberta was this, I think what we're experiencing is this, this connection between the different mind-sets, not only at the country level, but also at a company level at an industry level, but also at an individual level, because everyone has experience and has been through this space in a completely different manner. 

And so going forward, this these collaborations, these bringing together of likeminded people that have a common interest to share, like your story with your fellow colleagues Laura. I think it's very important because it's it brings more stability, obviously, even to the company and even to those circumstances.

Roberta:  Towards the beginning, Nadia, Laura mentioned how they were in communication with their colleagues from Asia to help them come up with ideas and solutions to implement within, within the plant itself. And I feel that's also partly what we're doing here within Insight. So we're bringing ideas as well from different countries, from different continents. So share these ideas, inspire people, and maybe help them adapt these ideas to solutions within their own organization.

Nadia:  Because perhaps we were a little bit at a loss, we're looking at our financials, obviously, we're looking at engaging our people as restructuring and realigning. I feel that Laura, as you mentioned, in the beginning, it was safety, making sure that we're always safe and kind of go through the first phase. 

Now we're okay, we have to live with it. We have to look at the situation. This is it. This is what we're all going through. So perhaps that's that was our intention, even with Roberta indeed, by sharing ideas, sharing different insights, let's take the opportunity, let's not miss this opportunity to realign to rethink our business. 

So which parts of your business Laura do you think that will shift slightly later perhaps from an operational model going forward? I know it's a little bit early, but perhaps you can share with us which parts do you really think that definitely you would need to reshape and remodel?

Laura:  Well, you know, as I said before, for sure there will be a big impact on traveling attitude because it's clear that we have to restart traveling we have to restart visiting customers for sure. We cannot only stay with the with calls but there will be this chance to use a tool that now we are used to and we didn't use so much before to be honest. So these will be the first reshape I can say of our attitude. 

Then of course we have been redesigning some common places in the company. So these will have an impact on changing rooms on break areas. Some of them have already been redesigned in order to welcome you know all our staff back to work and when homeworking would be reorganized, we will introduce some of these dividing Plexiglas walls in in our, you know, offices and desk stations as well, even if they are more than two meters that we feel that the people will be more comfortable if we also add these kind of things. 

From the point of view of our industry, you know, there will be for sure a growth in in the production of our customers of electronic faucets, this is sure because you don't have to touch them. And so these will have an impact on our on our headquarter production for sure, because there will be, of course, different models of aerators that will come together with these electronic forces, which we are already providing. But we expect that there will be a growth of these, or these kinds of products.

Roberta:  Well done, they're very inspiring, I must say.

Laura:  Thank you. Thank you to you for this invitation.

Nadia:  Thank you, Laura, thank you for joining us. Thank you for being with us today. I think it was a lovely experience a lovely story. Obviously it hasn't been easy, as we mentioned in Italy. So I wish you and all your colleagues and your company and your friends and family all the very best so that you will transition to the next phase as quickly as possible. Thank you very much.

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