Read the Conversation
EF: What was your given mission when appointed Managing Director to the Andean Region?
LP: I have already been working fifteen years in the company and for 4 years managed one of its biggest businesses for the region on the industrial side. I was appointed to my new position in January 2020 a couple of months before the pandemic broke out in the region and my original mission was the geographical expansion and penetration of the company and key customers. We had a strong plan to build and grow on the industrial side as well as in healthcare. Healthcare is for us a very comprehensive domain; we work with hospitals, ERs and in food safety which is an industrial activity but ties in with healthcare. We were expecting important growth in healthcare in 2020 but then in March the pandemic and quarantine came into play. Peru was the first Latin American country to declare quarantine on March 15th and Colombia followed a week later and our focus changed from the business to the people, a very different and interesting process.
EF: What was 3M´s role, specifically in Colombia during the pandemic?
LP: Due to the urgent need for respirators, essential to combat Covid, we were very much in the news at the beginning of the lockdown. Till then we participated mostly in elective surgeries but we had to change because due to the focus on Covid, hospitals only did emergency surgeries and this was an important downside for our business. On the other hand, we had a huge increase in demand for respirators –a worldwide occurrence. We were at the time and still are the world’s major N95 manufacturer and in the past when there was an emergency in some part of the world either because of flu or a volcano eruption we always managed to cover the needs finding respirators from one of our manufacturing sites. However, a global and simultaneous pandemic was a huge challenge added to the fact that the governments of the countries where we had manufacturing sites would not allow our equipment to leave the country. In spite of the restrictions and challenges involved, we managed to supply respirators and other products to Colombia and other countries but never in the quantities demanded. Surprisingly the biggest demand in Colombia came not from hospitals but our industrial clients mainly because the N95 filter is designed for occupational health purposes and is used in mining operations, metalworking, and for contaminated air conditions where a filter is needed not to compromise the workers’ health. To deal with this situation we worked with the Colombian government, the Ministry of Health, making a dramatic prioritization, with them telling us where the biggest needs were and we would try and comply. In some cases, we worked with the government through institutions and chambers such as ANDI to ensure all the N95 we imported ended up in the hands of doctors. We had to make tough decisions because our big customers from huge mining or oil and gas corporations also needed respirators and masks which we couldn’t supply as the priority was on the health sector. People think we made a lot of money during the pandemic and that is not entirely true because we were very limited by the global demand, especially in this region. The rest of our healthcare business continued to work in a much-diminished way throughout the year.
EF: When globally everybody was vying for resources, how did you ensure resources came to your region?
LP: It was about establishing a collaborative network from our headquarters down, there was a positive attitude of helping and that was the mindset we worked with almost tripling our production, it was a big challenge for the engineering division to scale up the speed of manufacturing the product. But we could never comply with all the demands. In Latin America, we have manufacturing plants of N95 in Brazil and Mexico but the biggest portion of imports was coming from the US. We also looked elsewhere for products using our internal collaborative network; we established relationships with the Colombian government to be in communication with the Brazilian and Mexican governments enabling them to work together despite the existing restrictive environment which made everything harder. We needed the active involvement of the different governments to do away with certain barriers and so be able to bring in products and resources to the countries with needs. We have a very big portfolio so we started to select other kinds of breathing protection that would help other industries, thus serving our long-time customers – it was a very stressful time for us. There are still serious challenges ahead but the vaccine has helped in relaxing the very urgent and constant demands despite vaccination moving rather slowly in Latin America.
EF: Nobody teaches you how to manage a pandemic, so according to your lessons learned what three subjects would you consider necessary to design a course for a Master in Pandemic Administration?
LP: For us, it was all about crisis management, although we never have had a crisis quite like this one, and we have learned a lot in the process. In an emergency crisis like the present the company must be activated, the values and the culture of the company must be proven and not all companies pass that test. I am both lucky and happy to be part of 3M because our focus is on the people, we focused on protecting our people and helping them in the process of transitioning into working 100% virtually. In two or three months we had programs of psychological assistance for employees up and running in the Andean Region, we leveraged the connectivity between the 5 countries and worked on what we called the ´work-life balance campaign´ for our employees so that they had for example off spaces for lunch as working virtually can be very tiring especially with kids in the same space. We made sure not to program meetings at lunchtime and ending meetings by 5 pm for our people to have a balanced life. We created spaces for people to interact, for example doing a recipe book with food from all our different countries which was a great success. Through crisis management, we had guidelines of how to have business continuity, maintain the organization's reputation during the process and most importantly transition forward. We were in the middle of a storm trying to cover the demand for respirators and N95s, which was not easy as we had a lot of unhappy customers assuming we were holding back product to give it to someone else, even government situations that needed to be handled taking care not to damage our reputation and we also had the responsibility of taking care of the people so a strong process for crisis management is fundamental. Our processes have always been good but now I can say with total conviction that we have great processes, we made mistakes but we learned a lot. Crisis management has two components, private management and people engagement strategies centred on innovation and how to keep people engaged during the virtual process. We came up with the idea of coffee talks, where people participated in conversations over coffee -this was where we got the recipe idea- allowing me to speak to a lot more people in the company than I had in pre-virtual days. Before I had to travel to speak to employees in another country, now in a coffee break I speak with our people scattered over 5 countries, we speak about how they are, their suggestions for the company and about their expectations and from these conversations came many ideas for crisis management so these spaces taught us a lot.
EF: What KPIs did you use to manage the group throughout the pandemic?
LP: Traditionally there are certain KPIs we look at, now we have new KPIs we didn’t use before but now are primary KPIs in our analysis. Normally for the business, we look at local currency, gross margin, and net income but now we analyze KPIs related to the medical side and how to manage and protect people. We have started to measure employee service with an engagement KPI, measuring people every 3 months last year, something we are still doing. We used to do it in a yearly or bi-yearly survey but now we do it quarterly focusing on the safety and engagement of our people. People have become the backbone of business continuity and when business was down we invested in our people, in personal protection equipment, in having the right tools in their homes to work, assistance and support in logistics, psychological help, and the ideas for these programs came from our employees themselves. It is a basic fact that if a business takes care of its people, the people will care for and about the business. Many companies have been tested, not every company has passed the test, and the companies that passed now have very committed employees - a major factor. As from last year, we have employees prepared to do that extra mile and as a result, we will do better and that is a big differentiator.
EF: Aligned as you are with the 2030 objective -which fits in with the triple bottom line- what would be your advice to business leaders looking for new opportunities to invest in the development of the region?
LP: I am not sure I am in a position to give my advice but I am very proud of 3M, that it has actively gone ahead seeking goals of commitment and sustainability for the company and helping our customers to be more sustainable. We are developing technology and products for our customers to use different types of energy, to recycle more, we believe it is our responsibility to help and support our customers to move forward. We need to be present and involved to be an example. To have the power to influence people one must talk to them and be active in connecting and joining up with the different associations or organizations and with their leaders to have a multiplying effect. Secondly, create a culture within the company by way of concrete actions, for example, we did an environmental challenge in the Andean region around water, with our employees' children making home videos on taking care of water, closing the tap while washing teeth to save water and things like that, very basic and domestic. This kind of promotion creates culture; we have what we call ´sustainability commandos´ in different areas, members of the countries in the Andean region creating basic projects. As leaders, we must work on making a big impact but also on the small things that make a difference in the day-to-day details as well.
EF: In five years when you look back on your 2020/2021 tenure, what would you like it to be remembered for?
LP: I would like to be remembered for helping people come through the complex journey we have had these last two years and if 3M employees remember me for that I would be happy. I prefer to be remembered for that rather than growing the company x per cent. Of course, I am responsible for the business and I work for it to be successful and am proud of what we have achieved with my leadership team. Once we are over this period there will be a good team in place to deal with what is to come in politics or economic recovery, our resilience muscle is strong and I am certain we will embrace the changes.
We are committed to Colombia, to help in the country´s recovery, we have a very ambitious plan for growth for this year and the next, we are optimistic about the Colombian economy and we will help drive it. Opportunities for healthcare are opening up, opportunities for customers and new segments are also opening up in the economy. Colombia is very important for 3M and we are committed to the country. We have invested, for example, in a technology centre to help develop local solutions.