What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with the lockdown.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2020

It has been a persistent warning in Britain that we are only about three weeks behind Italy in the development of our coronavirus pandemic. When we look to the south, we can see our future, and it’s terrifying.

Over 13,000 people have died so far in Italy, which has been aggressively locked down since March 9 - a degree of economic paralysis that doesn’t bear thinking about in a country so dependent on industries like manufacturing and tourism. 

Management Today has spoken to several business leaders in Italy, keen to share with their British peers what they’ve learned about running a business through this crisis. First up is Marco Alvera, CEO of €15bn natural gas infrastructure company Snam.

Based in the country’s worst-affected region, Lombardy, Snam is notable for being one of the first employers in Italy to institute remote working, starting in stages from February 24. At present, 2,300 of its 3,000 employees are working from home, with the rest - largely involved in maintenance work - continuing to work in the field, albeit with protective measures including the rapid construction of protected accommodation for workers in the control room for Italy’s 33,000km gas pipe network during their 14-day shifts.

“I’m not overly concerned about our business because we are an infrastructure company and people will continue to need to use electricity and heat their homes. What I am concerned about are those businesses that require travel and tourism, which essentially don’t exist right now. Fortunately Italy has a very good social safety net, but there are countries especially outside of Europe that don’t have this resilience.

“We’ve had people smart working now for a couple of years, which has really helped a lot.  We recently hired our first person entirely remotely, and closed a few business development initiatives with all the due diligence done from home. 

“We’re testing new ways of working that I think will stay with us forever. I save an incredible amount of time just by not having to travel - it probably used to take up a third of my week.  

“While we aren’t spending physical time together, we are spending a lot of time in video calls and it’s still high-quality time. People are concerned about each other and their family members, so I think the team’s closer than it’s ever been actually.

“Of course, when you have such a high frequency of video calls, you need to be a lot more concise, so we’re launching a new call etiquette. A lot of meetings where people just wanted to talk to the CEO about some commercial idea, meetings that are nice to do but not essential, those have all been cancelled. 

“PowerPoint may also not be an ideal instrument of communication because it’s designed to be live and delivered to large audiences, so we’re switching to short memos, where 20 slides can be summarised into one page.

“We’ve always taken corporate citizenship very seriously - I think we were among the first companies in the world to have a dedicated ESG [Environmental, Social and corporate Governance] committee at board level. For COVID-19 we donated €20m through our foundation to the Italian health system and third sector. 

“That’s a lot of money, but the easy part for corporations is to write a cheque. So for the last four weeks, we’ve been using our commercial skills and international relationships in our procurement department to source the critical equipment that’s needed in the hospitals, including over 1,000 ventilators and 4.5 million masks (the first 250 ventilators and 600,000 masks arrived yesterday). I think companies can really play a big role here.”

Image credit: Snam


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