The corona virus has a catastrophic impact on the Italian economy – and also hits those companies that were previously the flagship of the country, the fashion and luxury industry. Jean-Christophe Babin is the head of Bulgari, known for watches, perfumes and jewels. As a result of the pandemic, he had to close many outlets worldwide.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Babin, am I just calling you at the home office?
Jean-Christophe Babin: No, I am at London Heathrow Airport and am waiting for a flight to Switzerland. I’m almost alone here. It feels like the world has stopped.
ZEIT ONLINE: How do you protect yourself?
Babin: I am speaking to you through an FFP2 mask. In addition, I often wash my hands and make sure not to get close to anyone. But that’s not difficult, because as I said: there is hardly anyone here. Everything is closed, you can’t even have a coffee.
ZEIT ONLINE: You once said that you heard about Corona for the first time in mid-January, how has your life changed since then?
Babin: We have been surprised. We had already had experience with the Sars and Mers viruses and were expecting it to be in China would spread. But we would not have thought that almost the whole world would be shutdown two months later – and that the signs in China were increasing that the crisis had been overcome there. We had assumed that the virus would initially spread further in Asia. Now the new reality seems to be that Europe and America will be the most infected continents.
ZEIT ONLINE: How did you react?
Babin: First of all, we tried to protect our own people. We first supplied respiratory masks and disposable gloves to our stores in China while they still existed. Then we closed stores all over the world and adjusted our plans. We are now investing even more in e-commerce.
ZEIT ONLINE: Bulgari is known for jewels and fragrances. Now, like many other companies, you have started to produce disinfectants and make them available to civil defense free of charge.
Babin: Yes, we have handed over tens of thousands of disinfectant gel hand bottles to the Italian government, which we made at our factory in Lodi, southeast of Milan.
ZEIT ONLINE: Does a luxury goods manufacturer have the capacity to produce really large quantities of medical devices?
Babin: Of course. We usually make millions of perfume bottles. The production line in which we process alcohol was converted within a week. We will produce several hundred thousand bottles in the next two months. We cannot sell fragrances at the moment because the shops around the world are closed. So we were faced with the choice of closing our Lodi plant or using it for something else. And disinfectant gel for medical personnel is no longer available anywhere in the country, it is sold out everywhere.
ZEIT ONLINE: You could also think of it as a PR campaign.
Babin: This has nothing to do with PR, but with solidarity. But it is also better for us if our people work and do something useful than if we have to release them. I think our employees also find it better to work than to sit at home with reduced pay. They are proud of it too. You want to help that virus to fight. Disinfectants are urgently needed. I think any factory that can help in this situation should do the same. We lose money in the process, of course, but it is part of our self-image that we act like responsible citizens in times of need. That’s why we also donated medical equipment to research the virus.
ZEIT ONLINE: Their perfume production is in Lodi, a city that is badly affected by the virus. What do you hear from there?
Babin: Fortunately, we have no one in our factory who is infected with Corona. There are only seven Corona cases in our company worldwide – with 5,000 employees.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you already know how much your company will be affected by the economic consequences of the crisis?
Babin: It is not foreseeable. In China, the situation has almost returned to normal within eight weeks. The losses were very large, but only over a short period of time. If that is in Europe and repeating the United States like that would be the most mild outcome.
ZEIT ONLINE: Is the happening in China comparable to Europe?
Babin: The development in China was rather soft compared to Europe: the virus only spread in one region and there was no need to shut down an entire nation. Here in Europe, however, we are currently experiencing that an entire continent is being paralyzed. Large companies can take it. Bulgari itself is part of the LVMH group. But this puts a lot of pressure on smaller companies with fewer reserves.