Pandemic Lessons

It has been quite a year. We talk to some of the recent winners of The Irish Times Business Person of the Month of the award, in association with Bank of Ireland, on their pandemic experiences and their plans for the future.

Wearing well amid challenges

From digital product launches, to remote working and daily check-ins with staff, SUZANNE MOLONEY talks us through the challenges she faced during lockdown - and the noodles that got her through

On the challenges of a pandemic...
From a business perspective, I’ve learned that we have an incredible, resilient, team who will work hard from any location. It is important that we can still get HidraWear wound dressings to HS [Hidradenitis Suppurativa] patients despite the pandemic and we’ve worked hard from our living rooms and kitchen to make that happen. Adapting our plans for launching HidraWear in America was by far the biggest challenge. The original launch plan included a five-week tour of the States meeting HS patient groups and clinics. That was planned for April 2020 but obviously had to be cancelled. Instead, the launch was purely digital. I’m relieved to say that HidraWear is now helping American patients as well as HS patients in the UK, Ireland and Europe.

...and the opportunities
With everyone worldwide being home, in lockdown and self-isolating, it’s meant that we have had the opportunity to engage and offer support to more HS patients online. There are amazing communities on Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and specific HS sites where patients talk to each other and look for advice. These communities can be a lifeline for HS patients who are really struggling. The pain and symptoms of HS can really take their toll on patients’ mental health.

On remote working...
We have already decided to opt for a hybrid approach for the whole team. The pandemic has proven that it’s possible to have this flexibility and still be productive

...and motivating staff
We have a daily check in with the whole HidraWear team which we use as an opportunity to check in with one another as well as discuss our work. I sometimes send random little gifts to the team and we chat throughout the day using teams and on the phone. We definitely have lots of catching up to do when it comes to celebrating different occasions and milestones achieved. Everyone on the team by nature is highly motivated and engaged. I trust everyone to manage their time and plan their days. They always get the job done. I’m incredibly grateful for my team.

On the “new normal”...
I think that we, as a country, will go back to the way it was to a degree. Hopefully though, we have learned lessons from the pandemic that we will take forward with us. The flexibility for staff to work from home is a big one but also the importance of work-life balance for our physical and mental health. Communities have really come together, online and off, during the lockdowns and I hope that that neighbourly lifestyle will stay.

....which will feature Zoom
Both business travel and Zoom are in our future... Business travel to meet international colleagues, and in our case, national and international HS patients will definitely be back on the agenda. Zoom and video conferencing in general have proven their value for team meetings and collaboration.

On personal challenges...
Personally, my biggest challenge was where to live during the lockdowns. I am from Dublin but HidraWear is based in Galway.

HidraWear is at an important stage of growth, so there hasn’t been much time for hobbies. The time saved on commuting is ploughed into the business. I did start making my own kombucha though, which is delicious, and I’ve taken a few online courses too.

...and restrictions lifting
I can’t wait to see the whole team together. We are lucky to have such a great group of people who are united in their ambition to help people with HS. I’m looking forward to getting everyone together for dinner or drinks and celebrating the missed occasions, both in terms of business, and outside the office. One of my team graduated from college this year, another moved into his new home and another became a homeowner - all big events that should have been marked with a celebration. Then the company itself has hit some big milestones. Our first product was listed on the Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS) this year, and is available to patients through the medical card and drug payment scheme. We also have released three new products this year. This definitely would have warranted a party, so I look forward to celebrating with my team when we can.

On her top takeaway during the pandemic:
I love Jalan Jalan (www.jalanjalan.ie) — their noodles are addictive.

Suzanne Moloney is founder and chief executive of HidraMed Solutions which has developed a novel dressing system aimed at those suffering from the incurable skin disease, Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS).

Sky’s the limit for Aercap

A tough year for aviation didn’t stop Aercap chief Aengus Kelly from striking a €25bn deal to create the world’s largest leasing business. He talks to BARRY O’HALLORAN about the highs and lows of the past few months

Lockdowns, hotel quarantines and a tough year for aviation failed to prevent Aercap chief executive Aengus Kelly from leading his company to a €25 billion deal that will create the world’s biggest aircraft leasing business.

In March, Aercap agreed to buy rival GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) for a mix of cash and shares worth $30 billion (€25 billion). The deal will leave the Dublin-headquartered group with more than 2,000 planes, 300 helicopters and 900 engines, about 3,200 assets in all.

Aercap buys aircraft from manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing using its own cash combined with debt. It then leases them to airlines around the world, using the revenues from the rent to pay off its loans and fund its ongoing business.

Buying GECAS will position the company to exploit opportunities when air travel recovers as Covid-19 recedes. Assuming that competition regulators approve it, the transaction should go ahead towards the end of this year, by which time most in the industry believe aviation’s rebound will be gathering momentum.

Kelly and his organisation shepherded the deal with the seller, US giant GE, through a period of tough restrictions on travel and other precautions, including a Government demand that people work from home where possible. The Aercap chief had to quarantine in hotels in Dublin several times during the process.

“You do that because you have to meet the people you are dealing with,” he says philosophically.

Meeting the other side in any transaction happens as a matter of course, particularly when it comes to tackling elements such as due diligence, but the real challenge was the internal one posed by the work-from-home guidelines. “There are times in any process when you have to be able to meet your own team internally,” Kelly says, “when you have to look at what needs to get done today and to analyse all the outcomes.”

That is when he says the hard decisions get made. So managing this while continuing to comply with everything required of the business was particularly difficult.

Aercap’s success in getting the GECAS agreement across the line was down to the “formidable” group of people working there, Kelly says.

Working from home posed no great challenge to the organisation. Aercap’s business normally requires staff to travel and operate from disparate locations in Europe, the Americas and Asia. So its systems were designed for remote working.

Nevertheless, the business had to make sure that its people had access to the information and other resources they needed to ensure the organisation continued to operate. Those operations oversee a $44 billion balance sheet and an aircraft order book worth $25 billion.

From the trough in March 2020 and through a difficult period again late last year, Kelly acknowledges that his colleagues kept delivering. “It came down to the dedication of our people.” The organisation’s own culture of self-reliance was important too, he adds, as at the end of the day, it had no-one else it could call on.

Nevertheless, he believes a full return to the office - once that is possible - will suit Aercap best, arguing that working from home is not a recipe for success in any company.

“When you are not together you do not get the best outcomes, you get better decision making when people are together,” he says.

He does not believe that we are finally through the crisis, but says the market is recovering. Aercap has been tracking various trends throughout the world back to April last year. Demand is returning in China, which is further down the road than we are. Passenger numbers are improving, and, in a clear sign of rising confidence, queues formed outside luxury goods stores as lock downs started to ease.

How it will play out closer to home is harder to know. Kelly points out that Europe rebounded very rapidly during last summer’s respite from the worst of the pandemic. Along with many in his industry, he feels that short-haul air travel will recover first. “In the nearer term, people will stay closer to home,” he acknowledges. The pace of long-haul’s recovery will be slower and will be determined by factors such as Asian’s people’s willingness to fly to Europe or the US. Business travel too will not bounce back automatically, but Kelly argues that it won’t take long before video conferencing’s limitations are exposed. “If you see your competitor in front of your customer, then you are going to have to get in front of your customer too,” he says.

It may take a few years, but he believes travel will come back, not least because so many people have been cooped up through a difficult time.

“We all want to get a bit of sun and give ourselves a break,” he says. No prizes, then, for guessing what he will be doing once restrictions lift.