Andrea Bonalumi: “This crisis is changing radically, and perhaps definitely, the way of communicating and interacting with customers and suppliers”
In this interview, the manager of Promos Italia, the national agency of the Chambers of Commerce of that country, tells how the crisis caused by the pandemic has caused an “extremely deep and extensive” impact in Italy, with thousands of businesses closed and unable to operate. Access to credit is not enough, he says, because companies need cash flow, and they need it immediately. But the essential thing that this crisis is showing, he explains, is that digital, in all its forms, will be a tool that companies can no longer be without. “What was once considered a tool for the few, or a ‘nice to have’, is bound to become a tool that few can give up. It will be essential in relationships.”
Made in Italy is a brand universally recognized as synonymous with quality, excellence and style. And contrary to what you might think, it is not based on the work of large companies and corporations, but mainly on small and medium-sized companies that, thanks to their tradition and quality, have formed the basis of the Italian business fabric and have led it to be highlighted internationally.
It is this fabric that today has been most shaken by the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, one of the European countries hardest hit by Covid-19. And it is a deep crisis that will take years to recover from, says Andera Bonalumi, manager of Promos Italia, the national agency of the Italian Chamber of Commerce system (including Milan, Genoa, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Perugia, to name a few) that supports Italian companies in their internationalization processes, the development of the local economy and the improvement of the territory.
Today, Promos Italia, like many companies in that country – and in the world – has managed to organized itself so that employees work from home. The concept of “smart work” is giving excellent results, says Bonalumi, and has allowed both to continue guaranteeing people’s safety and to maintain direct assistance from companies and the provision of some services.
In this interview with Eurochile, Andrea Bonalumi explains the reach of the crisis in Italy, what has been done so far to deal with it, and how they have managed to maintain some activities despite the containment measures of recent months.
I understand that while Promos Italia events have been suspended for now, the offices remain in operation. How are they operating today, what measures have been taken to guarantee the well-being of their workers?
The health of our employees is undoubtedly the priority, and therefore we have adopted prevention measures that are offered to the few who are working in the office, to do it safely. The entrances and exits have been separated, body temperature is measured, and the distribution of masks and dispensers with the distribution of disinfectant products is present in all areas of the company. However, the most relevant measure continues to be social distancing and intelligent work, which – widely adopted – is the cornerstone of preventive measures.
In relation to services, we have restructured some activities and planned a series of initiatives with the aim of guaranteeing companies really useful services in this complex phase. For example, a central activity in which we are committed is supporting the digitalization processes of companies. If before many companies were reluctant to develop digitalization processes, both in production processes and in promotional and commercial activities, now the unprecedented circumstances dictated by the pandemic have forced them to understand that digitalization is a path that must be undertaken by need. We are also working to create a platform that allows virtual B2B meetings between Italian operators and buyers from all over the world. This will be extremely functional, because it will be difficult to travel again in a short time and, therefore, any form of physical meeting between entrepreneurs will not be possible for some time yet.
What has been the main impact of this crisis on the Italian economy, and how has this affected the work carried out by Promos Italia?
The impact of the crisis in Italy has been extremely deep and extensive. Closing businesses and more businesses for more than two months has brought many entrepreneurs to their knees. Non-food retail sales have collapsed in favor of increased sales through e-commerce. The loss of GDP compared to the first quarter of the previous year is estimated at 4.7%, and in addition containment measures in Italy – and in the main trading partner countries – have depressed foreign trade. In the province where I live, Bergamo, one of the most affected by Covid-19, it is estimated that 84% of companies, within six months, will request layoffs and, at the national level, the latest estimate by Cerved foresees a total loss for companies of € 420 billion in turnover in 2020, and more than € 120 billion in 2021. Promos Italia is supporting companies by helping them plan useful strategies to start in the best way; in particular, I repeat, encouraging them to use digital, because this will be one of the most relevant tools to aid recovery. We are resistant people and our business fabric, I am sure, will be able to recover.
How has this impacted the work of the Italian chambers of commerce, which sectors of commerce have been most affected?
All sectors have been involved in this tsunami that has overwhelmed us. I am thinking of small businesses, manufacturing companies, and the tourism supply chain, which this year sees the season in reverse and is struggling to mitigate the impact of the crisis. The chambers of commerce are providing all possible support to companies, both in terms of bureaucracy and in practice, as well as economically, with non-refundable contributions that help them in this economically very complex phase.
What measures should be promoted from the State and from the financial system to help in the recovery?
Companies need cash flow and they need it immediately. It serves to encourage the sector of entrepreneurs who have already lost tens of thousands of euros in turnover and this, in cascade, impacts employment, orders, throughout the chain from production to distribution. Only this measure, right now, can help companies resist and allow them not to shut down. Access to credit, which is in fact the measure that the government has adopted so far, is not enough; it cannot face a crisis of this magnitude. We are also waiting to understand what the European negotiation will bring as a contribution. This is also a crucial step in understanding what concrete support our companies will have, but I would say our entire economic system.
One of the focuses of Promos Italia’s work is to support the internationalization of its chambers of commerce. What do the future perspectives look like in this sense, what changes in strategy or ways will there be to carry out this work once the crisis is over?
This crisis is changing radically, and perhaps definitely, both the way of communicating and the way of interacting with customers, suppliers and stakeholders. This also applies to international relations. The first thing, fundamental for those who export, is to keep active the relationships developed over the years in the various markets and, for the moment, the only way to do it is through digital channels. But I would say that digital, in all its forms, will be a tool that companies can no longer be without. What was once considered a tool for the few, or a “nice to have” is bound to become a tool that few can give up. It will be essential in relationships, as mentioned, in correspondence and also in commercial activity, at least in the first post-crisis phase.
What opportunities do you think open up after recovery begins?
Making predictions at this stage is very complex and there is a risk that the opposite will be proven. Now it is necessary to constantly monitor what is happening at the health and economic level, and provide companies with all the tools to understand the context and make the best decisions for their business. If you had to choose a priority, surely in this phase it is essential not to lose the market shares gained over the years, and to intercept the opportunities that will be presented in the different markets that will be able to start again first.
What role will the Latin American region, and Chile in particular, have in the future work of Promos Italia?
Chile is a friendly country of Italy, and strategic for the Promos Italia business. Last year, the first of Promos Italia’s life, Chile was the subject of the first international institutional visit. In April, in fact, I was in Santiago and met the executive director of Eurochile, José Aravena, and with its president, Vicente Caruz, with whom Promos Italia has signed a collaboration agreement with the aim of further strengthening trade relations between the two countries. We received the Minister of Public Infrastructure of Chile in Milan and the director of Investment Promotion of InvestChile, who participated in a workshop at the Milan Chamber of Commerce in which business opportunities in Chile were presented for Italian companies. We intend to involve Chilean companies in the B2B activities that we are planning in the coming months.
What, in your opinion, are the lessons we will draw from this crisis?
There are many. Some refer to the life of each one of us, our health, our affections, the importance of what we live on a daily basis, which seems obvious to us, but it is not. The crisis leads us to political reflections, for example, on European governance on issues such as health, but not only that they should be rethought; economic reflections, for growth and development models that increasingly show their weak sides, without being able to reformulate them, due to a dangerous return to the principles of isolation instead of cooperation. Last but not least, I personally consider that one of the few positive aspects of this pandemic that has become important: it has put the science, back at the center, giving it the legitimacy it deserves, dangerously questioned in the recent past, for example, during absurd debates about the validity of vaccines.