In this series, the financial times is following an italian family-owned company through the pandemic crisis. after returning to work following the shock and trauma of italys lockdown, in this third instalment italy has managed to keep the virus under control for now but it is still spreading elsewhere damping the companys recovery.
In august, francesca masiero breathed a sigh of relief when her companys revenues started bouncing back for the first time since covid-19 wreaked havoc in northern italy and fast: after months of losses in the spring, during the worst of the countrys pandemic in the veneto region, sales were up 49.2 per cent in august compared with the same period a year earlier.
But the respite proved shortlived for pba, the manufacturer of door handles founded by her father luciano in 1974.
September was stagnant. while the innovation, planning and design teams are keeping busy, the commercial squads are now facing a slowdown in the us, pbas main export market, and again in much of europe, where the pandemic is resurging.
During the most crucial phases [of the pandemic] we kept running and we are up to speed, but the world around us is in disarray. we are moving, but if the global economy stands still, we cant go very far, said ms masiero, pba president, sitting in her office in the small town of tezze sul brenta, where the company is based.
During the first phase of the pandemic, pba has exemplified italys resilience, a country whose economic strength is rooted in the hundreds of thousands of small export-oriented family-owned businesses like ms masieros. but that resilience is now being tested to its limits as the pandemic grinds on and a new surge in cases forces governments to reimpose restrictions on economic activity.
The italian economy has shown signs of partial recovery after authorities relaxed strict measures intended to contain the spreading virus. the country is set to shrink less than the spanish and the british economies this year, with manufacturing and retail forecast to bounce back more strongly.
But the world remains mired with risks: the eurozones output is not expected to recover to pre-crisis level until late 2022 and in the us, president donald trump falling sick with covid-19 has injected yet another dose of uncertainty into the presidential campaign less than a month before the elections.
Even if italy has managed to keep the virus in check so far, on wednesday the government imposed a blanket injunction to wear face masks outdoors, in an effort to stop the rise in infections.
Ms masiero said she had spent the lockdown that was gradually lifted from mid-april, one of the most stringent in any western democracy, investing in more technologically advanced, and therefore more expensive, products. the plan was funded by savings and an unusually strong first quarter.
We cant afford to live in a bubble, the 48-year-old said. every day the situation becomes more and more complex, with the health crisis weighing on economic activity, and the economic activity heavily relying on science.
Daily cases in italy are now on the rise 3,678 on wednesday, from the low hundreds in june when restrictions started easing but life feels almost normal for pbas employees.
Schools, theatres and gyms have reopened. in the main square of the medieval town of bassano del grappa, a few kilometres from pba where ms masiero and other employees live, restaurants and bars are full, although people are still social distancing and wearing masks indoors. residents enjoy walks in the countryside and run along the river brenta.
Rosanna bizzotto, pba chief financial officer, recently took a train to venice with her family for the first time. it was regenerating to be out with people.
Pbas corridors brim with noise again. around the coffee machine, some employees, diligently spaced out, are chatting during their break. more time slots have been added to training sessions to avoid overcrowding, and new workstations brought in.
The company has kept all of its 120 employees, tapping government aid to cover three hours a week per worker. it was able to bring designers who finished their trial periods on to permanent contracts. we are finally enjoying being here together. lets just hope it lasts, said luigino toniolo, one employee.
Pba is focusing on new products such as bathroom accessories and door handles in stainless steel and copper, favoured for its natural antimicrobial properties, and casings for hand sanitiser. some have already been installed on construction sites served by pba in the us.
Like most businesses in the region, pba relies on a network of small local suppliers. this has proved to be a strength, even though most of them had to close at the peak of the first outbreak, and struggled to cover rent and machinery maintenance costs when they reopened. pba had to pay more for materials during this period, but it never ran short.
We have not had any major problems with our suppliers here, because they are close to us [and] we developed a personal relationship over the years, ms masiero said. they were more than happy to open and work exclusively for us when other clients werent fully operational.
But this falls short from counteracting weak demand abroad. the more the pandemic spreads across various countries, the more complex everything becomes...with a rise in nationalism and potential restrictions to trade, said stefano zen, a senior manager.
Clouds are gathering again but ms masiero remains positive: it wouldnt be ideal, because we still believe human interactions are essential, but if theres another lockdown tomorrow we are ready to be fully operational from day one.
Additional reporting by valentina romei in london