"It's a roller coaster." - Interview with CEO and Co-Owner Christoph Gamper on how to run a business in Covid times.
How do you run a company when a quarter of the workforce is down, and components are missing at every corner? Durst CEO Christoph Gamper on everyday life at Corona.
Salto.bz: Mr. Gamper, you have just returned from a business trip to the United Arab Emirates. Does that mean it's more or less business as usual for you at the moment?
Christoph Gamper: It is definitely not business as usual. Yes, I've just come back from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I actually wanted to go on to Australia. It's been two years since I've been to our branch there, and I urgently had things to conclude there. But Australia had to be canceled at short notice because our Managing Director there had a vaccination breakthrough. My sales manager tested positive for Omnikron one day before departure. In the end, I was alone with customers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So, unfortunately, we are still a long way from normality.
You have now spoken of two executives who are unable to work because of the virus. Do you also have an overview of how many of the total of just over 880 employees of the Durst Group worldwide are currently out of action?
Currently, about 25% of the workforce is affected by the virus in some form. Not all of them are in bed but are also out of the office because children and relatives have been infected or because they have had contact with infected people. The regulations are currently being relaxed worldwide, but until recently we had many cases where our employees were not positive but could not come to work because of the strict regulations on positive contacts.
And how does one work under such conditions? Or, more concretely: What does the CEO of an internationally active manufacturer of high-tech large printing systems do to ensure that the business still runs?
For me as CEO, it's almost a schizophrenic situation at times. On the one hand, I have to generate sales and plan for the very long term to have the necessary materials to produce. And on the other hand, we are driving entirely on sight. We have planning reliability of a maximum of two weeks because politics apparently acts in two-week cycles, and the virus cannot be controlled anyway. So, it's a roller coaster of emotions. Not just for the CEO but the entire team.
In some cases, we don't even know how much capacity we have available in production on any given day. On the one hand, because of the employees, on the other because of the supply chain. After all, everyone is affected, not just suppliers in China. We also source many components from the surrounding area, from medium-sized companies in Germany, for example, and it's the same for everyone.
To stay with the staff for the moment: From a purely practical point of view, what happens then is that you first have to see who is in and who is not every morning?
Yes, there's an update early in the morning about who's here and who's not, which has a corresponding effect on the planning, deliveries, and customers. And I get to feel the reactions to this around two days later because by then, at the latest, I have the first angry customers on the line asking me where their delivery is.
Heiner Oberrauch, President of the Employers’ Association of the Province of Bolzano recently warned that delivery bottlenecks would be unavoidable in some cases due to the tightened staff shortage. Can you confirm this fear?
Well, in the business-to-business sector, at least in our area, this has already happened for a long time. In the consumer sector, developments are always a little delayed, but it's an absolute reality for us. We build very large industrial printing systems that are used for digitization. On the one hand, these systems need inks and fluids and all kinds of other things to make them work and enable printing. In the area of these chemical components, we are often on allocation. That means we can no longer buy on the open market at all but have to go through brokers or, in any case, make an impossible effort to find these components on the world market.
On the other hand, we need electronic components, for which we know there are also supply bottlenecks. One of our strengths is that we invest over 20 million euros a year in research and development, but now, given the lack of availability, we have to redesign components, i.e., use other chips or build other boards. And of course, all of this always involves time delays and massive energy expenditure.
This means that your daily routine consists of constant improvisation, rescheduling, replacing employees with others... . Does it also sometimes happen that it is no longer possible to produce anything at all?
No, we can always produce something. But in many cases, either the employee or a component is missing to finish a product, and then everything sits on the stockpile. And everything that is not delivered ties up cash, which becomes a problem at some point. For some companies, to a much greater extent. Fortunately, we've done very well over the past ten years, and we still have a little more air and a little more nerve, but at some point, even we will run out of space.
Has this been going on for two years now, or has the situation with Omnikron become even more acute?
Since November, there has already been an escalation, which we have not experienced to the same extent before. But of course, it has been a roller coaster since March 2020. In the beginning, everything is shut down; then, you start to get your hopes up. We also took a lot of action; I think we were even the first in South Tyrol to produce masks; we developed the Habitat air disinfection system and launched new products on the market. All things that we have created out of our innovative strength. Also, to save our workforce from falling into resignation, into that hole. We succeeded in doing that, and to be honest, I thought the whole thing was over last summer. We had also had a huge summer party without any contagions. But then everything came back in full force.
And in the meantime, you also realize: the team, myself included, we're just tired, we all can't take it anymore. I had a vaccination breakthrough around the turn of the year, despite boosters. I am an incurable optimist. But when I sat in isolation in a hotel room in Florida on New Year's Day, instead of celebrating at the wedding of one of my best friends, I thought: I've really had enough now.
And there's still no glimmer of hope on the horizon?
I'm afraid the problems with our supply chains aren't over yet. That's going to go on, I guess, for at least another 12 to 18 months. Then, of course, we'll have to see how things go with the infection issue and all the political solutions around it.
You already had a 12.5% drop in sales in 2020. Did the situation worsen again in 2021?
No, we are relatively quick to react, and fortunately, we were able to adjust our strategy successfully. In 2021, we were again able to increase about 25%, which is above the pre-crisis level.
Yet you say everyone is exhausted and can't take anymore. What would help companies in this situation? What support would you expect from politics or even society?
We have mainly helped ourselves during this time and will continue to do so with new products and strategies, or even very simple things, like our own lounge, which we opened. Since the pandemic, we have been cooking for our employees ourselves, with our team, using regional products. We have started to celebrate community even more. Socially, it helps us a lot if there is recognition of how important manufacturing is. But in this respect, we have full support here in Brixen. Politics can do little about it, especially not at the regional level. What would be important is that at the international level, there is no longer a policy of isolation, as in the first phase of the pandemic, where the U.S. then closes down to Europeans and the like, especially because we have all seen how completely pointless these country closures are anyway.
Did the fact of being internationally active tend to do additional harm or good during the Corona period?
Typically, it has always benefited us in times of crisis because there's always something going on somewhere in the world, even if there's a crisis elsewhere. Corona, on the other hand, hit everyone more or less at the same time in the early days. And that was a problem because we couldn't move. And that is a problem when you sell large industrial systems, some of which have to be installed over weeks. We have very large crews flying around the world to get our systems up and running.
And that was sometimes no longer possible at all with all the travel restrictions and illnesses?
Exactly. Now things have improved somewhat. Nevertheless, it used to be easy to get on a plane to install a textile machine in Brazil in a week, for example. Today, this requires lots of documents and tests, and our employees also run a great risk of becoming infected somewhere in the world and ending up in quarantine.
On the other hand, the market situation must play into the hands of a digital company like yours...
Absolutely. The pandemic has driven digitization to the degree that even we could not have imagined. We have already benefited from this to some extent and will help even more in the coming years when we will finally be able to move more freely in the world again.
Against this background, it is probably almost a miracle if you have already returned to pre-crisis levels.
That's absolutely no miracle, nor is it thanks to politics or anyone else, but entirely the hard work of a great team. Fun fact: In 2019, before the whole thing started, we created a Digital Nightmare Competitor. That was about mentally creating your own toughest competitor as part of your strategic planning. We then had a competitor who did everything digitally and where there was no longer any need for print products... And I have to say: That was nowhere near as bad a scenario as what has since occurred with Corona. But now we can say: we have survived Corona so far, we will survive everything else.
Susanne Pitro, 01.02.2022, www.salto.bz
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