It was February when the management team began to realize that they were looking at a potentially very serious situation. The DMK Group’s crisis manager was following the news coming out of China with growing concern, reading about the novel lung disease that was spreading rapidly out of Wuhan and raging through Italy. And while Covid-19 had become a familiar term for virologists, Germany’s Bundesliga was still playing soccer games in packed stadiums and thousands of people were gathering to celebrate Carneval. Hermann Köster and other crisis managers moved to set up the DMK Group’s coronavirus task force.
That group of experts now includes more than 30 members. They all made sure that so far, DMK, its employees and farmers, have come through the crisis relatively unscathed, thanks to their swift decision-making and foresight in setting up safety measures.
The Task Force, which encompasses Köster, DMK management and members of DMK’s crisis team, started to tell employees about initial preventative health measures in early March, through regular emails, posters and signs that called on people to wash their hands more often, keep a distance from each other and, most importantly of all, to stay at home if they showed any symptoms of illness. This focus paid off, as so far, the DMK Group has seen very few cases of the coronavirus.
The group talks every day and is in constant exchange about what to watch out for, what could happen next and which preventive measures to take, in order to protect the company and its workers. It was clear from the outset that DMK was one of Germany’s key food businesses and of systemic importance.
Germany saw infections surge in mid-March, a time when decisiveness was needed. The Task Force informed all executives on March 13 that any desk-based employees should work remotely if possible. “I am so pleased at how quickly our company was able to work together with IT to roll this out for around 1,500 people,” says Köster. This was a critical step, definitely worth taking, and is still working well today.
“I had my doubts at the beginning, but now that several months have gone by, I have to say that working via telephone and video conferencing has become an integral part of our daily processes,” says CHRO Ines Krummacker. “Teams in some areas have even managed to set up video coffee breaks each day so everyone can keep in touch.”
The pandemic has affected every part of the company and every single employee. Alongside farmers on their farms, employees in the production sites have also played a critical role in ensuring the company was able to function and keep the populace supplied with food.
“I owe my thanks to everyone for their tireless work,” says Köster. “And I mean everyone: From the farmers to the milk collectors, the internal sales team through to the employees in the factories and warehouses. And, of course, the administrative teams. They had to keep heading to work to keep the business running. The last four months have really been a learning experience in terms of team spirit and a sense of “us” across the whole company, he says.
”We were focusing on the virus nonstop,” says Logistics Director Hartmut Buck.
“We were working on finding warehousing space for finished goods, packaging and empty containers. And at the same time, as international borders were closed and goods were moving more slowly, we also had to keep an eye on our supply chains, to ensure we could maintain supplies to our domestic and international customers. In this peak phase, we could really sense the company’s team spirit.“
While many desk-based employees could work from home and quickly got up to speed with new processes and ways of working, Köster and his task force were already on the next step. They asked themselves how a “new normal” might look amid the coronavirus, what form would daily work might take and how would production work with the pandemic? Furthermore, they wondered, how could the company prepare for a potential second wave of infections? In the course of the outbreak, the task force developed detailed operating procedures to protect employees’ health and secure production and supply chains. They canceled work trips, suggesting digital meetings instead, called on suppliers and service providers to follow special health regulations, and reduced external visits to plants to an absolute minimum. The list of recommended measures, developed in line with recommendations from the health authorities and the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control center, went even further. They also addressed washroom cleaning cycles, determined where hand sanitizer should be placed, where partitions were needed if social distancing was not possible and determined the allocation of protective face masks.In short, their extensive planning addressed every last possible detail.
And together, all these measures help prepare the company for a return to the “new normal.” Remote working is now in place for employees on a voluntary basis, initially until the end of August. Personnel stores will also remain closed until then. Meetings are only to be held if they take place in line with the current social distancing and hygiene regulations, if they need to be held in person at all. Evening events are banned for the time being.
Looking back, Köster says one thing was clear to him right from the start. “No one could and can say exactly how the pandemic will affect our lives in the future. What you need to do is stay focused, keep a clear head and not get careless, even if there were times we all had to take a deep breath.” By June, as infection numbers fell and hopes arose that normality might return, the German government eased some of its restrictions. The crisis manager started to relax a little too.
This is more like a marathon, demanding stamina, awareness and caution.
“We are working and living amid a pandemic and that’s challenging for all of us. The situation, and what we know, is constantly changing. That means we have to be dynamic too, while at the same time staying calm and clear, without going into overdrive and rushing into things,” says Köster as he reflects on one of the most turbulent periods in his career. “For us, even if the situation is a bit more relaxed right now, we have to stay alert and keep a careful eye on how things are developing. If we keep being sensible and behaving with foresight, we will come through this crisis in good shape as a company, and perhaps even emerge stronger than before.”
It’s thanks to the good sense and willingness of all farmers and employees that DMK has come through the pandemic so successfully so far – as well as thanks to the painstaking work of the Coronavirus Task Force. Or, as CEO Ingo Müller puts it, “it makes me proud to see how we as a company have handled this stress test so far. Times like this show what we as a community are capable of achieving, and what WE means!“