In a dedicated webcast to the trade press on 9th June, Bobst Group gave some insight to the latest equipment, software and systems updates that will allow converters to continue growing their businesses. But prior to this, Daniel Brunton, Publisher of International Paper Board Industry had the chance to speak exclusively with Jean-Pascal Bobst, CEO, specifically looking at the impact COVID-19 has had on the global scene as well as ramifications for Bobst.
We chatted for a while, trying to embrace the ‘new normal’ – a session like this would normally have been done face to face in a Board Room in Mex, Switzerland. But we had to resort to an online call, like every other executive who is looking to keep business moving during these troubled times.
We joked that this was the longest period of time we had ever spent at home, seeing our children and enjoying family time. For both of us, 25+ years of traveling pretty much every week feels like a bit of a distant memory. Does he miss it? “I have certainly enjoyed a slightly easier schedule without the hours of time spent in the car, on a plane or in a hotel,” said Jean-Pascal Bobst. “But I do miss the face-to-face interaction with colleagues around the world, as well as the in-depth discussions with customers while visiting their factories. I am looking forward to that direct contact again. I do, however, think that it will be some time before we travel extensively again.”
Being a global supplier, with manufacturing facilities in multiple locations, I wanted to know how the company had handled the emerging news in February about the very real threat of COVID-19. “We started to get serious reports from our colleagues in Shanghai in late January that this outbreak could become a significant issue,” explained Jean-Pascal Bobst. “We learnt a great deal from them, which enabled us to get ahead of the curve in terms of disaster planning for our operations around the world. It meant that we were able to take all necessary action at the various manufacturing sites, reducing or even closing assembly in some places, but keeping spare parts manufacture and distribution fully operational. Thanks to the work undertaken by our Asian ‘task force’, we had solid plans in place for Europe and the Americas before the local governments started to place countries in lock-down. Thanks to their observations, we were able to source significant amounts of PPE for our companies in Switzerland, which has allowed our teams to be protected. We even had enough that we could donate a large number of pieces of PPE to local charities and within our community in Switzerland and European facilities.”
We talked more about disaster planning. I challenged Jean-Pascal on the effectiveness and scope of a disaster plan, as most companies look at loss of production due to fire, for example, but did Bobst Group have such a plan in place for a pandemic? “The short answer is no, we didn’t have such a vision,” he confirmed. “We could deal with the loss of a factory due to fire, or other business scenarios, but one thing we have never even considered was the global ban on flying – this was and remains a very real issue for us. We are lucky that we have engineers on every continent, but they still have to be able to move freely in their territories and this has caused challenges for us. Of course, we have online and remote tools that enable us to check and diagnose equipment at customer factories, but not all issues can be fixed over the phone. The main thing is communication though – we have continued to reassure customers all around the world that we are on hand to help and will continue to do so, even if it cannot be in person. This special care was very much appreciated by all.”
I wanted to know what Jean-Pascal’s view on trade shows was, in light of the ‘new version’ of life we see ahead of us. “I think that all the big shows will need to re-assess their business model, just in the same way that us manufacturers have had to look at the way we operate,” he said. “There are new ways of communicating, as has been shown by the rapid acceptance of video-conferencing and also the ability to host virtual demos and seminars. For example, we did an online demo of a new machine for a small handful of customers and by the end of the presentation, we had secured an order. It is not to say that this is the new way of working, but I do feel that people will be reluctant or even scared to travel for a couple of years, which means potentially, footfall at the bigger shows might be effected. Maybe more localised events and dedicated open house events will gain in popularity, but time will tell. What we are certain of though, is that we have lots of innovations that we need to tell people about, so we will be unveiling lots of new things over the coming six months or so.”
Of course, the news then followed that Bobst would not participate at any trade shows in 2021, with the limited exception of Asia. A bold move indeed – but the reinvestment of money allocated for the trade shows into their Competence Centres as well as other activities is a wise move during these troubles times. Where leaders lead, others will no doubt follow.
With Mental Health Week taking place in May, awareness of the impact that COVID-19 is having on people around the world is at the forefront. Remote working is fine to a certain level, but how does he feel about having his team spread out, working from home and away from each other? “Team work and collaboration seem to work best when people are together, it is a simple matter of human nature,” said Jean-Pascal. “We have spent a lot of resources developing our platforms and embracing digitalisation.There is no doubt that our industry is seeing the rise of digitalisation as the next major step-change and so the systems we are rolling out will certainly help us to ensure customers are up and running faster and for longer.”
What about other positive changes, as life re-starts? “One thing COVID-19 has taught us is ‘Protection’ – we need to protect our people, protect our customers and we must protect our planet. We are now putting in place measures to further enhance the safety of our people in their daily jobs, as well as protecting the future of our customers by supplying them with machines and systems that offer the best ROI and highest levels of productivity. Finally, the fact that digitalisation and systems mean we might not have to travel as much can only be a massive positive in reducing our global carbon footprint, which is to the benefit of the planet and future generations.”
He concluded, “Hopefully, this is a once in a lifetime event, but like all people and all businesses, we must find the positives where possible and adapt the way in which we work and operate. But be sure of one thing – Bobst continues to develop its range of products and services to ensure we are able to stand by our customers’ side.”