“When the emergency is over, we’ll all have to learn to live and work differently”

Interview with Vezio Bernardi, General Manager Sacmi Closures Containers PET QPC, on how to navigate a company through the Covid-19 crisis

by Gabriele Kosmehl

The north is the region of Italy where the country’s engineering companies are located, and the north of Italy is also the first region in Europe where the coronavirus has struck fully. We would like to thank Vezio Bernardi for giving us a picture of the mood at the middle of May about Sacmi’s handling of the crisis situation, market developments and an outlook to the time after the crisis.

PETplanet: First of all, where are you talking to us from right now? From your office desk or your home office?

Bernardi: At the moment I’m working from home and just going into the office to deal with essential paperwork. Many national governments, including Italy’s, have imposed severe social distancing measures. These have, during this first phase, played an essential part in stemming the spread of a worldwide virus that is having inevitable repercussions on the way we live and work.

Nonetheless, we’ve shown – by combining the advantages of IT with personal commitment – that it’s possible to carry on working at the highest level, keep in touch with customers and safeguard the efficiency and professionalism of our services as we await the time when we can get back to nurturing relationships directly with all our partners”.

PETplanet: Northern Italy, where the headquarters of your company is located, was the first region after China that had to fight the coronavirus, and is still doing so. When did you realise that the virus could have a major impact and what measures did you take in response?

Bernardi: At this stage, Sacmi’s motto was ‘Let’s move forward. Together’. Let’s take, for a moment, a closer look at what that means. True, Northern Italy, especially Lombardy, was where the virus hit hardest, with many people falling victim to it, especially among the most vulnerable. Fortunately, Italy is a developed nation with the ability to come together and deal with what is an epochal crisis, one that has, in fact, affected the country’s different regions in different ways.

In this regard, I wish to point out that in Imola, a town of 70,000 inhabitants that’s home to Sacmi’s parent company, the situation has always been under the full control of the health authorities, with limited contagion and even more limited fatalities. Nonetheless, right from the earliest stages the Sacmi Group’s policy was one of scrupulous compliance with all the instructions issued by the health authorities, the government guidelines and, of course, common sense. Sacmi is already geared up for the re-opening, also because the government immediately categorised the work done by Closures-Beverage as part of the ‘essential’ supply chains, so production was unaffected by stoppages”.

PETplanet: What  does this “gearing up” look like, what protective measures are currently still being implemented at your sites?

Bernardi: As I said, our supply chain has not undergone any interruption. But the most important thing is that Sacmi as a whole – which works in various industries – immediately began to seek a way forward that would, first and foremost, protect our staff, suppliers, customers and partners’ health while allowing production and assistance services to continue. This is why it was essential for some workers to start working from home. At the same time, for personnel who still needed to come in to the company, we adopted every possible precaution, from PPE to sanitisation of premises, all under the daily control of a task force, specifically put together to cope with the emergency.

PETplanet: Do you think that concepts like working from home will be firmly established on a larger scale at Sacmi even after the coronavirus crisis?

Vezio Bernardi

Bernardi: I think this situation has accelerated what was already an ongoing process, often slowed more by bias and consolidated habit than any real limits imposed by the technology. Of course, we mustn’t forget that some limits do remain: for some staff it will always be essential to be able to go into the company, or visit a customer, albeit with all the necessary precautions. What I think, in all conscience, is that when the emergency is over, we’ll all have to learn to live and work differently. We’ll need to place greater emphasis on relationships, skills and initiative, on our ability to build well-being for our companies, customers and communities while making use of new tools.

PETplanet: You mentioned that your supply chain has not undergone any interruption. Does that mean that all deliveries are timely and complete?

Bernardi: Out in the field, major difficulties still persist. Not all suppliers were able to keep production going. Sacmi has broad shoulders, but this is not so for everyone. Some of our partners are experiencing the inevitable economic difficulties that stem from quarantines and production stoppages. Moreover, we can’t deny that implementing all the necessary safety measures lowers, in the short term, the efficiency of the companies. This is reflected in a slowdown of the entire supply chain which, at times, demands prompt corrective action. Fortunately, Sacmi has selected its suppliers carefully over the years; hence our confidence that the moderate delays being experienced in some cases will soon be corrected and regular supply and assistance services re-established.

PETplanet: How can you support your customers especially in countries with closed borders and severe travel restrictions? Is it ‘business as usual’ for  your support services?

Bernardi: If we take pre-Covid service and assistance levels as a benchmark, the answer is no. It would be dishonest to argue otherwise. However, we’re doing everything possible to adapt our support and assistance capacity to fast-changing scenarios. As early as the beginning of March, we sent many of our Italian technicians to strategic locations in various parts of the world, thus strengthening our presence in areas already manned by local technicians. In addition to the provision of routine Customer Services, Sacmi is also using virtual reality for both Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT) and Start-up and Acceptance Tests (SAT) on customers’ premises.

Day by day, we’re steadily improving and implementing technical/technological solutions that expand our remote operations capacity. With the support of locally placed technicians and the help of the customers themselves, we’re able to keep operations ticking along satisfactorily. It is, I wish to reiterate, a challenge that we are fully equipped to cope with: but victory will only be achieved through teamwork. Hence, I repeat, the slogan that has accompanied us so far: Let’s move forward. Together.

PETplanet: In addition to maintaining operations, EU directives, such as tethered caps, have to be developed and implemented. Is development work even possible under present circumstances?

Bernardi: Without a doubt, albeit with the necessary precautions. All those who can conduct their business from home will still continue to do so. For those who work in the lab where we develop and test all new capsule developments – including work on tethered caps – we’ve divided the work into two 8-hour shifts so we can work in complete safety on all the development projects included in the original program.

PETplanet: What about your order books? Do you feel that your customers are currently holding back on purchasing decisions?

Bernardi: Unfortunately, the crisis is a global one that extends far beyond the borders of Italy and Europe. In its truest meaning, the word ‘crisis’ signifies change: in the way we work, consume, live. In China, for example, where the recovery has already begun, our customers are manufacturing at 80% capacity and the curtailment of in-country travel is shifting consumption from small-format drinks to public vending machines or larger formats. In any case, the fact that Chinaplas – a long-standing plastics fair held in April, the ideal time to understand the production needs of the Chinese market – was cancelled, leads us to view the ongoing recovery with a degree of caution.

In India, the total lockdown, now expected to last until early May, has also shut down production in the beverage supply chain. Here, our customers kept on manufacturing while warehouse stocks lasted, then closed their factories. Even in Africa – affected to a lesser extent by contagion as such – travel restrictions prevent people from buying drinks from the street stalls that constitute the bulk of the continent’s ‘retail outlets’.

Moving on to the United States, millions of people have been placed under lockdown and lost their jobs in the space of just a few short weeks. This will inevitably impact consumption and, consequently, the investment choices made by the industry’s multinationals, triggering a cascade effect that reaches our customers.

In any case, we believe it’s too soon to assess the real impact of the situation on our sales. A lot will depend on the how long the recovery takes and how it unfolds, on when investors – and, more importantly, end consumers – start to feel confident again.

PETplanet: In Germany, more than half of all companies applied for short-time working. Does this possibility exist at your company locations and if so, do you make use of it?

Bernardi: In Italy too, many companies, ours included, are taking advantage of the social safety nets provided for by current legislation. These include cassa integrazione, which provides payment for furloughed workers, and the use of backlogged holidays as we seek, in every way possible, to compensate for the production slowdown or, in many cases, partial or total production stoppages. Clearly, such emergency measures are not sustainable in the long run, as company resources are limited and even state coffers are not bottomless. Hence the need to prepare for a safe restart as soon as possible.

PETplanet: What other supporting measures would you have liked to see from your government or the EU?

Bernardi: I am, with good reason, worried that, even after any recovery, all the companies in the supply chain will have liquidity and volume issues and that it will take a long time to get back to pre-Covid levels. During this Phase 2, it may simply be unfair to apply the usual economy and company performance indicators. Of course, in the short term it will be essential to make good use of all the available tools, such as the export financing support plan (SACE), in a broader, more streamlined way than in the past.

PETplanet: When do you expect the economy to recover?

Bernardi: I’m no expert in macro-economic analysis. However, I do read in-depth studies on our industries on a daily basis. My own opinion is that we’ll see an economic recovery in the last quarter of the year, but if we’re looking at a ‘return to normal’ we’ll have to wait until at least the second half of 2021.

PETplanet: In our last editorial in PETplanet 5/2020 we published a guest article by Erik Eichler, the production manager of Hansa-Heemann AG, Germany. In it, he highlighted the efforts of the PET bottling industry and at the same time pointed out that this situation should be used as an opportunity to improve the public image of the PET bottle. How do you think the image could change, and the hygiene and logistical advantages of plastics could become the focus of public attention in the long term?

Bernardi: I fully agree with Mr. Eichler, for a clear reason. Our problem is not plastic, but its dispersion into the environment and incorrect recycling-disposal methods. We should take this opportunity to make people more aware that plastic, especially PET, is crucial to the survival of 10 billion people, that is, the number of people who will, in the space of a few decades, soon be living on earth.

In such a scenario, developing a circular economy is a must, a strategy vital to the survival of our species and the protection of our shared home, planet Earth. Hence our belief that plastic can and should play an essential role on account of its low cost, the ease with which it can be recycled-reused and, in essence, the possibility of its reintegration into the chain of environmental resources that are essential to our lives, health and well-being.

PETplanet: Thank you very much, Mr Bernardi!