‘Our country needed help:’ Italy’s only ventilator maker works round the clock (and at cost) in coronavirus fight

‘Our country needed help:’ Italy’s only ventilator maker works round the clock (and at cost) in coronavirus fight

Efforts to halt the coronavirus pandemic have been likened to fighting a war. For Italian businessman Gianluca Preziosa, the call to arms arrived on the morning of March 6, when his phone rang and a government official on the line from Rome informed him that the prime minister would be getting in touch in a matter of minutes.

Italian leader Giuseppe Conte was eager to speak with the
46-year-old manager given that Preziosa’s company, Siare Engineering, is the only
Italian manufacturer of a key weapon in the battle against coronavirus:
ventilators.

Moments later, Preziosa and his father Giuseppe, who founded Siare in 1974, were speaking via videoconference with Conte and Angelo Borrelli, head of the Civil Protection agency, Italy’s equivalent to FEMA. Pleasantries were kept to a minimum as Conte’s team explained that they wished to place an order for 2,000 ventilators and wanted an answer by that afternoon.

Instrumental in combatting COVID-19, ventilators assist or replace respiratory functions, pumping oxygen into the blood for vital organs.

Italy currently has about 3,000 ventilators, which appears well short of its needs. As of late last week there were over 2,600 coronavirus patients in intensive care with respiratory problems and each day the number of new infections continues to rise—the virus, meanwhile, has claimed over 4,000 victims in Italy, a grim record that is destined to grow in the coming weeks.

“The spotlight was on us and we knew we had to deliver,” said Gianluca Preziosa. “This was a national emergency and our country needed help.”

Gearing up

Days after that fateful phone call with Conte, as hospitals in northern Italy began to see a surge in numbers of COVID-19 patients in intensive care, the Preziosa family drew up a plan to boost production at their facility just outside Bologna. A typical month sees Siare manufacture 160 ventilators for intensive care units. Now they would need to quadruple their output.

To satisfy the immediate needs of a handful of ICU wards, Preziosa managed to redirect already sold ventilators bound for Asia by talking with GE Healthcare, which distributes Siare’s products overseas in 60 countries. “The General Electric folks in the U.S. and in their Italian office got together and okayed the decision to allow us to prioritize hospitals here in our country given the outbreak Italy was experiencing,” Preziosa said.

As hospitals in Lombardy started to receive these first ventilators, Preziosa had to quickly rethink the assembly of his life-saving machines to fulfill the Italian government’s order. “Usually, each worker is responsible for putting together a whole unit themselves, bringing together the ten sections, from the wheel base to the monitor. Now we had to make a new work flow where people focused just on making one section.”

A medical worker tends to a patient inside the new coronavirus intensive care unit of the Brescia Poliambulanza hospital, Lombardy, Italy, on March 17, 2020.
PIERO CRUCIATTI—AFP via Getty Images

To assist Siare’s 35-strong workforce, Rome has dispatched
25 engineers and civilian contractors affiliated with the ministry of defense
to help with assembly. “We have people with experience working on tanks who now
will dedicate themselves to a new sort of armament—one that is able to combat
the virus,” adds Preziosa.

This past week, the new arrivals underwent 48 hours of training and are now getting to work to help relieve exhausted Siare crews who have been operating round the clock, seven days a week. The company is also looking to hire another programmer to assist with the proprietary software the firm uses to run its interactive touchscreen displays.  

Keeping things local

As the lone manufacturer of ventilators in Italy, one imagines officials in Rome would have rung the Siare offices earlier in the outbreak, when the focus was on containing the virus in a handful of towns under quarantine in Lombardy.

One factor that may have delayed Rome’s move to contact Siare
was the company’s relatively small footprint in Italy—its home market only
counts for 10% of its orders. In the early 1990s, Siare, under Gianluca’s
father, focused on securing orders from foreign hospitals and clinics after
experiencing lengthy delays in receiving payment from healthcare facilities in
Italy.

“It would take him a year or more to get paid in some cases from public hospitals. My father wanted to invest in R&D to improve his product line and needed cash flow back then so he looked abroad,” explained Preziosa, who points out that Siare will sell the Italian government its order of ventilators at cost. That gesture, together with the company’s ability to ramp up production has earned it praise from many corners of Italian society. This small company has become a household name in recent weeks.

Donations have flooded in and Preziosa has collected the money into a fund that will go towards assisting one of the hospitals on the front line in the fight against COVID-19. Others have extended offers of assistance, including Ferrari, which is in talks with Siare to help in the procurement of parts for its medical devices.

The newfound attention directed at Siare has again put the spotlight on the importance of countries maintaining critical industries within their borders. In recent weeks, countries such as the U.S. and U.K. have been on the hunt for available ventilators to prepare healthcare providers for the expected surge in COVID-19 cases. Some governments are even restricting local medical equipment companies from fulfilling international orders.

For Preziosa, the opportunity to help his fellow countrymen during one of the nation’s darkest hours goes beyond any sort of monetary compensation or publicity. “You feel an enormous responsibility on your shoulders,” he said. “I’ve never seen my father so emotional. He’s not one to cry. Not at funerals, not at weddings. This is different.”

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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