What threatened to be the most severe downturn since the Great Depression began with a surge in sales for Francesca Masiero’s family business in Tezze sul Brenta, northern Italy.
In February, more than 8,400 km away, factories closed in Wuhan, subject to mass quarantine imposed by Chinese authorities to curb the spread of the new corona virus. American clients turn to PBA, the Masiero steel manufacturing company, to look for components that they can no longer obtain from China.
“We started this year hard,” Masiero said.
Bonanza was suddenly short-lived, and even then it was a reason to worry for 48-year-old executives, who said he felt a health and economic disaster coming to the Veneto region long before his employees realized the seriousness of the Covid 19. epidemic. “I told my employees that it was might hit us too. They think I’m crazy. “
On March 23, the company was asked to close its factory in Tezze sul Brenta – the latest in a series stricter quarantine measures ordered by the Italian government. Ms. Masiero did it in three days. For the first time in 50 years of PBA history, the machines were silent.
Ms. Masiero has agreed to share her story with the Financial Times, recounting her struggle to stay in the company founded by her father when Covid-19 created chaos throughout the Italian economic center. Over the next few months, we will follow PBA’s struggle to survive and express the concerns and hopes of its staff, suppliers and local communities.
In this first chapter, Ms. Masiero describes the shock of lockdown, when all business activity is stopped, the death toll surges and fear enters.
The epidemic and lockout steps of Covid-19 are the biggest threat ever faced by Ms. Masiero’s business – one of the nearly 4 million small and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of the Italian industry. The euro zone’s third largest economy, already fragile before the pandemic, is expected to suffer biggest contraction in its modern history.
“When everyone realizes it’s real and everything improves. . . My team’s emotional tension is very high. “You can’t be near the hospital right now, even if you cut off one of your fingers,” he said.
Founded by Luciano Masiero, Francesca’s father, in 1974, Profilati Brevettati di Alluminio (which means patented aluminum profile) goes through countless recessions and domestic political crises while gaining international status. The stainless steel door handle at the entrance to the Empire State Building in New York, which he supplied last year when the building was renovated, is one of the proudest achievements.
The company, which employs 120 people and its motto is “To live without obstacles”, produces tens of thousands of high-quality door handles and windows every year. Exports to more than 40 countries account for 85 percent of its revenues, which amounted to € 18 million last year.
Since taking the helm after his father’s death in 2014, Ms. Masiero has opened offices in the US and Germany, the company’s main market. This business is his life – and even more so since the breakup of Covid-19.
“I even stopped reading books. It is impossible to concentrate on something that is not the current epidemic, “said Masiero, who is the sole heir of the company and has no children.
He shifted his mind from Covid-19 when he taught a business philanthropy course to students enrolled at the University of Bergamo. But even this side activity only gives a short help: Bergamo, a city in Lombardy at the foot of the Alps, has recorded the highest epidemic mortality rates. More than half of all Covid-19 deaths in Italy – which have surpassed China – have been recorded in this region.
Nearby Veneto, where Ms Masiero’s factory is located, has also been one of the main affected areas, recording 631 deaths so far.
“Virtual classes in situations like this are very difficult. “Most of my students live in the worst-hit areas, they also fight in the trenches,” he said.
“Health emergencies can turn into long-lasting economic and social emergencies, [but] we don’t have to let that happen, “Masiero said.
The Italian government has imposed the most drastic restrictions on Europe to contain the virus. Italians have been ordered to stay at home except for emergencies or important work. All non-essential shops and businesses have been closed. National lockdown is widely expected to be extended beyond Easter.
“Everyone is aware of the fact that what happens is important, but we have to face it, we have to deal with reality. And the reality is that we have to go back to work, “Masiero said.
50 factory workers first fear their health, then for their work.
“If at first our workers were very worried about transmission, if not afraid, in the end, they also realized that they had to go home and pay their bills,” said Luigino Toniolo, who started working on the factory floor when he was 16, four decades ago, and now oversees production.
“When the government told us we had to close, many of our employees came to me and asked if they should worry about their work. They are all afraid. They can’t lose their salary, “said Mr Toniolo.
Ms. Masiero said she had no intention of laying off anyone. “The main goal is to save work. . . This is not a year of dividends and profits. This is the year to open our factory, “he said.
Thanks to their unusually strong start to the year, PBA has a buffer. First quarter profit rose 46 percent compared to the same period last year. “We were able to slow down production temporarily,” Masiero said.
The company’s commercial staff have continued their work from home, and new orders have arrived. “Our current orders total more than € 2 million and we can easily continue working without interruption,” Masiero said.
But because the virus has spread throughout the world, suppliers and some customers have had to stop operations. The main suppliers of PBA are all based in the surrounding area in northern Italy and face the same disorder.
Some shipping carriers have stopped and some clients will not accept delivery. “Some French clients even told our truck, which is half way, to stop and come back.”
The Financial Times makes the main coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.
On Monday morning, Ms. Masiero successfully reopened a section of the factory to make steel handles for people with disabilities in hospital bathrooms – labeled as important by the government. A dozen factory workers have been called back to work.
They will wear gloves, masks and coats. “Everyone in the factory, including me, will be fully covered as if we were doctors in the intensive care unit,” Masiero said.
Video by Davide Ghiglione, Josh de la Mare and Ben Marino
Charts and data by Federica Cocco and John Burn-Murdoch
Produced by Adrienne Klasa
to request modification Contact us at Here or [email protected]