Hungarian innovator (and automotive supplier, among other things) Tungsram is looking at new ways to sustain its business in the environment created by COVID-19, as well as to come up with new solutions that help personal hygiene. The Budapest Business Journal talks to president and CEO Jörg Bauer, a past winner of the Expat CEO of the Year award, about the future.
BBJ: Tungsram is a Hungarian brand, of course, but what is the added value that this country can deliver to your company?
Jörg Bauer: Hungary has a long tradition of innovation, very often with limited resources. When we look at patents per 100,000 people, Hungary used to be among the best; a spirit I experience daily. However, most patents now are international ones submitted by the patenting companies abroad. Until 1989, when it became part of GE, Tungsram was always been at the forefront of Hungarian innovation in engineering, electronics and, naturally, lighting.
Throughout our more than 120 years, we had to reinvent ourselves multiple times. Now we are transforming into a company that builds on its sophisticated supply chain, global reach and refocuses on some of the most pressing challenges of our time: food security, sanitation and data-driven solutions that work toward energy- and cost-efficient buildings and cities. Light plays an essential role in all three, as much as data; the overall aim is to increase the well-being of humans.
BBJ: What is your company’s “weight” in Hungary?
JB: We are active in different industries with different weights. Overall, we are one of the largest innovative and industrial Hungary-headquartered companies with more than 3,000 staff in our five active factories, and around USD 250 million in revenues.
BBJ: How do your operations affect the global and EU markets?
JB: We are traditionally strong in Hungary and Southeast Europe, which we consider our home markets. We are present in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa, too, with a presence of more than 100 years in some cases. Our more robust markets are in Western Europe, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom.
BBJ: How has COVID-19 changed your reality?
JB: In many ways. Today, 700 of our employees work smoothly from home, while we do what is realistically possible to safeguard our staff in factories. We are discussing what the right approaches are about the labor organization that we would like to keep after COVID-19.
We are selling in more than 100 countries globally, and we have been experiencing almost as many different reactions affecting our sales operations. We are active in various industries, such as automotive lighting, that were impacted as early as the end of March.
Already before the crisis, we had implemented solutions relating to sanitation, such as using UV-C light. Nevertheless, we got a massive push to develop prototypes and solutions that we strongly believe will stay with us for the long-term. I cannot imagine that a traveler, for example, will not wonder how clean a transport device, a rented room or the food will be. Proactive communication (and actual action) about sanitation will become a must for hospitality, travel and healthcare. We see Hungary as the home of the inventor of sanitation, and Tungsram, together with other Hungarian innovators, as a potential winner of this megatrend.
BBJ: What is the “new normal” that you are returning to?
JB: It is still not clear what shape and timeline the expected recovery will take. Even Nobel prize winners sometimes disagree 100% (V-, U-, W- or Nike Swoosh shapes). We are tracking the hard facts daily, but also the sentiment in our industries, with our customers and business partners. Based on what we see, we are carefully optimistic that, COVID-19-wise, we hit rock bottom at the end of April.
We budget for a gradual, steady recovery till yearend and assume that, without a second wave, Q1 next year will see us back to regular business. Another lesson suddenly learned is the need to think, plan and act in scenarios.
As a team, we will be closer and even more focused. I am very proud of the team for accepting a cut in working hours and other difficulties to get through the worst months intact and to secure as many jobs as possible.
Quite a few of our investments have proved to be resilient. However, we know now where we want to continue to invest to be successful in the new reality after COVID-19. Resilience is probably the most significant lesson for countries, companies and individuals. The question is not so much if there will be regionalization of critical supplies, simplification of formerly globalized supply chains, public investments into national food security, sanitation and healthcare in different parts of the world, but in what way and to what extent.
BBJ: How long might it take to get back to where you were prior to the outbreak?
JB: In our traditional business areas, we expect normal business by Q1 next year. However, in some of the new activities addressing megatrends that COVID-19 has accelerated, we see a bright future.
Tungsram is welcoming innovative companies and startups in the infection protection field, from all over the world, to find solutions that are so important for Hungary and the global market. “We are also inviting universities to research the most effective and secure technologies. We are seeking areas of application, references in hospitals, hotels, in the food industry, in public transport, and anywhere else where sterile surroundings are indispensable. For this, we need a partnership among the companies, universities, and research centers of our country; alone, we cannot manage it,” the call says.