A Good Company’s Response: All for one, One for all

A Good Company’s Response: All for one, One for all

A New Focus on Solidarity and Equality

(20.04.2021)

Mr. Vojtech Chamek, KORADO Group CEO. Article for Bloomberg Businessweek Bulgaria

The global economy has been irreversibly changed by a virus, and our lives and industry too. As never before, this can strike any company, any employee - today it is me, you tomorrow – we are in this together – all for one, one for all.

This is a personal story. As the CEO of the Korado Group with very important Bulgarian operations, I want to share some of my experience over the last year plus. Essential to the story is how Korado, a major manufacturer, its reaction and strategies illustrate  this fundamental change and the challenges it creates. 

From the very outset it was rather obvious to us the coronavirus story would become a large chapter in the recent history of humankind with risks of biblical proportions to everyone. As a company, we set a seemingly simple target: to survive and predict as well as we could the stages of the pandemic as it gradually unfolded so that we could respond. 

As a company, our responsibility is not solely to our shareholders but also to our 700 employees and their 2000 relatives. Wellbeing of our employees was always our top priority during the pandemic. Not just medical wellbeing, but spiritual and economical too. Unfortunately, the external environment was not very welcoming to this approach, on the contrary it was pretty hostile with many trying to use or even misuse the coronavirus. We saw attempts both from inside and outside to close down our plants, we saw attempts for a juicy media story and we did not feel support from authorities either. People were understandably confused and worried. We had to overcome the basic human instincts to shelter at home to do the best for us all. 

Based on my personal experience, furloughing factories like ours is often fatal and the factories often never restart. History and numbers showed that businesses who took the route of shutting down hoping for a positive change in environment often failed to re-open. In a time of complete lockdowns, serious limitations of movement, people are left with absolutely nothing except going to work which has become a privilege. So to say a welcome break of being stuck in a repetitive, claustrophobic home routine and an economic safety net for the family. 

Therefore, we were amongst the very first in many measures, trying to provide decent degree of safety, comfort and care to our employees whilst maintaining operations. We put thermal cameras in places of entry to discourage past habits of people coming to work ill. We established hygienic protection across the factories. But mostly, we initiated a series of friendly conversation with our employees to make them aware of how important it is to keep ourselves going to safeguard some of their critical needs with an uninterrupted flow of income. We also sent a positive message we would take care of our staff with full pay if fell sick or do not feel well and that all of our employees understood the implication that working sick was not a virtue, it was a risk to everybody and that “today it is they, it may be me tomorrow”. That enabled us to keep very high spirit and unified dedication of all staff across our factories from Bulgaria to the Czech Republic, and to operate throughout the pandemic as safely as we could.

However, our internal operating procedures and ethos are only a part of the equation. We are a multinational company with sales in over all continents and in more then fifty countries and with factories in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. The external operating environment set by the various governments was another matter entirely.

I am personally very, very proud on our Bulgarian plant and their staff. They did excellent job during pandemic, they were always 100% reliable and important member of our “family” with Mr Reznicek traveling back and forth during hardest times. Naturally, it was mutual. When the tough time came and markets for Korado Bulgaria collapsed overnight, we did not hesitate and passed substantial part of our sales on them. So did them when early this year we did not have the steel in Ceska Trebova. Korado Bulgaria not only sent us unselfishly some steel they needed desperately for themselves but they also increase the production even knowing they would be short of steel in March – we needed to keep our clients for Ceska Trebova decently satisfied and without the selfless help on part of Korado Bulgaria we would not be able to do it – there is no question here, we could loose some and anger many.

That how good and balanced family should work together. Others did not have the luxury of multiple and well coordinated plants they could help each other in tough times.

When such an unprecedented and different kind of crisis occurs, the question is how to respond in an equitable way and to preserve the common good. Within a company it is a dilemma. How did Korado avoid conflict and remain open? The basic rule is simple: those with responsibility vested in them by shareholders, and trust earned from employees – management and myself as CEO - have to act strategically and decisively for the collective good. I cannot shirk or procrastinate as CEO on health and safety, nor on actually managing during this crisis. Reacting with agility and clarity, and supporting explicitly line managers on these issues allowed us to keep our operations running at every level. Guidance and direction has to come from the top and be part of a convincing strategy that all buy into. Without such clarity and direction, without continuing operations, we would have gone bankrupt quickly. No manager, no worker in such a crisis and period of stress can hide behind others, and as CEO encouraging individual as well as collective responsibility and good morale has been essential.

Equality – or the right of different groups of employees to have  the same treatment – in such a crisis situation is a real challenge. On one level, it is simple to apply on the factory floor. The tough call comes when white collar employees can work from home and be sheltered from a virus while those in factories and service roles do not have that option.   Achieving equality in terms of risk of exposure and potential sickness are hard to reconcile. I have stressed solidarity at all levels of the Group, and in particular keeping all people in their roles but with the very clear message of support should any fall ill, and emphasizing again and again the principle that “…today it is me, you tomorrow.” Putting in practice such equality combined with clear identification and support for those falling ill has worked.  The approach has not been abused.  With buy-in on such a simple and essentially democratic approach, as CEO I and a good team have keep our operations and our factories open, we have been able to respond to our customers, we have improved the support from our shareholders, and equally important we have sustained the lives and livelihoods of a broad groups of stakeholders.   The next stages of the pandemic are unclear, but I believe our simple approach of equality, solidarity, support and improved mutual trust has proven a robust and effective approach and will be going forward as well.

Vojtech Chamek started work as a mechanic, then studied hard, advanced into finance and banking which after the Velvet Revolution made him part of the founding of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and subsequently working in the Motokov International Group before being hired by Korado Group (major manufacturer of radiators and heating products with factories in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic) first on restructuring, and then progressing to Group CFO and then Group CEO.

20. 4. 2021