By William Boston
Executives looking for the best way to virus-proof their plants or eager to discuss their pandemic-fighting ideas are increasingly turning to one group for advice and feedback: fellow business leaders.
Before the pandemic, small talk among the corporate elite might revolve around golf handicaps, culture or management. Now, the conversations -- often conducted online -- focus on the virus, how best to prevent infections as economies reopen and how the pandemic is changing the way they do business.
From these talks, support networks of high-powered executives have emerged, often clustered around specific industries, sometimes built on top of pre-existing circles, where members swap virus-proofing recipes, discuss policy changes with regulators, ponder the longer-term impact of working from home and brainstorm ideas about how business can help in the crisis.
Emilio Herrera, COO of auto maker Kia Motors Europe, said that during a meeting on April 29 with executives from Repsol, the Spanish energy group, conversation focused on trading tips for adapting their businesses to the pandemic.
"We have a lot of contacts with CEOs in other industries. Talking to the top guys at Repsol, we discussed this. It's pretty much what everybody is doing now," Mr. Herrera said.
Repsol confirmed the meeting and said it had no further comment.
Ever since Covid-19 reached Europe in January, Giovanni Liverani, CEO of insurer Generali Deutschland AG, said he had held regular phone calls and video chats with CEOs of other companies about the virus.
With 9,000 employees working from home for more than two months, Mr. Liverani said regular contact with business partners was important -- such as talking to airlines to deal with logistics issues, and regulators to address policy issues.
But he also tapped his own personal network of chief executives to discuss the broader impact of the virus on the economy and on business, and specific strategies to keep things running.
"Contact with other CEOs was very important," he said. "After we sent our people into home offices, a lot of my friends who are CEOs contacted me to see how we did it...Of course, there is a lot of networking within the Generali group. But with the CEOs of other companies it's more a relationship-driven process."
Some of those people include the CEOs of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Italian energy group Eni SpA, he said. One of the issues that Mr. Liverani and his informal network of CEOs discuss is what the new normal after Covid-19 will look like.
"I'm not sure we're going to get back to normal," Mr. Liverani said. "We are trying to define a new way of working in the insurance industry that does not rely on big offices."
Eni declined to comment. FCA didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
In March, Volkswagen AG was flooded with inquiries from other companies, including from Toyota Motor Corp. executives in the U.S., after The Wall Street Journal reported about Volkswagen's in-house virus handbook detailing 100 measures to shield its global plants from coronavirus infections.
In response, Volkswagen granted outside access to an internal website set up to explain its anti-coronavirus strategy and best practices. The company opened the site to its 40,000 suppliers, and some rival auto manufacturers. Since then, the handbook has been downloaded more than 120,000 times by people outside the company.
Andreas Tostmann, the Volkswagen board member in charge of global production, used the business social network LinkedIn to share the document.
The trend extends to the fiercely competitive tech industry. Rivals Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have linked up to develop a framework for contact-tracing apps that record when smartphone users come near someone later diagnosed with Covid-19. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai told Wired last week he had discussed the project directly with Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Jacqueline Guichelaar, senior vice president and CIO at Cisco Systems Inc., said, " The walls are definitely down compared to what they used to be. We are sharing anything and everything right now."
Existing groups of CEOs, world leaders and other groups that connect leaders, such as the World Economic Forum, have also engaged their global networks to aid the fight against the virus.
In February, the WEF, host of the annual high-level economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, created the COVID Action Platform, a global network of its members with around 35 separate working groups addressing a broad range of economic, health and policy issues.
At the time, health communities in Europe and the U.S. were short on medical supplies, including surgical swabs needed to collect mucus samples from suspected patients for testing.
The problem: Most swabs used globally were produced by two small companies, one in Maine and another in northern Italy. Demand was exceeding their capacity, and the Italian operation was set to close as Italy locked down. The situation was so dire that the U.S. Air Force flew a C-17 transport plane to Italy in mid-March to load boxes of swabs from the production plant for transport to U.S. hospitals.
Ric Fulop, CEO of Desktop Metal, a 3D-printing machine manufacturer, recalls pulling his hair out during a video call with conventional manufacturers, who were suggesting they could expand capacity within a year.
"I was thinking this is never going to happen like this," he said. "They need millions of these things by the end of the week."
Medical experts from Harvard Medical School who were on that videoconference reached out to Mr. Fulop to explore the possibilities that 3D printing offered to produce medical equipment faster than conventional manufacturing was able to do it.
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Fulop marshaled a phalanx of industry contacts who wanted to -- and thought they could -- solve the problem. Over a weekend, working with a team of medical experts at Harvard, design teams from several companies vetted some 200 designs for the printed swabs.
Soon, the group agreed to proceed with designs for a rapid swab-printing process from HP Inc., San Francisco-based startup Origin Laboratories Inc., Massachusetts-based Formlabs Inc., and Redwood City, California-based Carbon Inc., Mr. Fulop said.
Within days the first swabs were being printed and within a month they were commercially available.
"What we have today is industrial scale," Mr. Fulop said. "Five commercial products that are individually packaged and sterilized. Millions of products shipped to hundreds of hospitals."
Philipp Jung, a senior executive at HP's 3D-printing business, said the collaboration that he witnessed was rare.
"This was something unique that was driven by the pandemic and the needs there."
--Angus Loten contributed to this article.
Write to William Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org