The pandemic tidal wave has sunk global stock markets and becalmed business activities.  SMEs have had to navigate these troubled waters with extreme care in order to stay afloat. 10 stories from inside the turmoil.


Long live confitment

When the 35 Neoness and Episod fitness centers were shut down on March 15, it was a huge blow for Verona, a fast-growing SME well on the way to becoming a mid-cap company. Verona’s founder, Céline Wisselink (M.99), is nevertheless satisfied with the way she has handled the situation. At the human level, first of all. For the past 12 years, she and her associate, Marie-Anne Teissier, have invested in the recruitment and training of their teams: their coaches are all on long-term salaried contracts, which means they can take advantage of partial unemployment benefits financed by the government.  “In the UK, coaches are freelance, and neither they nor their employers receive any state aid. We are lucky to be here!” To compensate its customers, Neoness has offered to extend or upgrade current memberships. It’s also giving classes via social media and its MyNeoCoach app, which provides digital coaching and training programs and can be downloaded free by anyone who wants to take full advantage of their “confitment”. “This crisis has inspired new sports activities of all kinds: at home, outside or within companies, with digital services completing sessions in the gym.” Fitness of the future.

Films and urban art 

Getting the word out

Jonas Ramuz (M.14) has one foot in audiovisual production (with Boogie Nights) and the other in enhancing urban spaces with art (Quai 36). In mid-March, both filming and street art were shut down completely. Fair enough: Boogie Nights is finishing post production of a commercial and launching a 3D project, while at Quai 36, Jonas is busy getting the word out about his artists and murals. Take a break and make a mark. “That’s how we’re adapting to the lockdown!”

Cooking classes

Master chefs online

Covid 19 caught L’Atelier des Chefs in the midst of a strategic change. Building on the success of the SME’s cooking classes for the general public, founder Nicolas Bergerault (H.90) was beginning to launch online cooking classes for professionals. The healthcare crisis accelerated this transformation. “Our 11 workshops, which were our main revenue sources, were shut down. So, we focused on our online training program, which is continuing for all our subscribers. And, in order to establish connections with the various centers – also closed – that are training apprentice cooks, we gave their students the chance to use our online revision program for free to help them prepare for their final exam for the CAP Cuisine diploma.” The company’s cooking-school team has also kept busy, offering its corporate clients an online culinary challenge for their employees. As for Nicolas, he’s made a name for himself by cooking something live every day at noon on Facebook, using only what he can find in his home cupboards during lockdown!


Seeing in the dark

« The Shadow of Stalin », Condor Distribution’s biggest film to date, was supposed to be released on March 18. Alexis Mas (H.00), president, can at least see some humor in the situation. “The good news is that our film has had an exceptionally long advertising campaign, because our posters have stayed up all along Paris’s empty streets for weeks!”, he laughs. He’s now preparing the next steps while dealing with two major unknowns: the date movie theaters will be allowed to reopen, and how big audiences will be, especially when all the films that have been postponed start coming out at once. “If theaters reopen in June, we’ll try to get the film into as many places as possible. If the reopening happens later, it will be better to release the film directly to video-on-demand platforms. We’ll have the same dilemma for our next films!”


Increased insecurity

« The lockdown dealt a triple blow to France’s 140,000 homeless people: highly exposed to the virus, prevented from staying where they lived, in the streets, and unable to fall back on their last resort, begging,” explains Nicolas Bluche (H.73), head of Emmaüs Alternatives.  “We’re making things up as we go along to be able to continue providing our support services, which are financed by the state and by local organizations. Our daytime reception center closed because we couldn’t maintain social distancing, and it had to be moved to a gym in a partnership with the city of Montreuil. We are stepping up our food assistance and we are doing our best to help find homes for people, to collect their mail for them, to provide social and administrative support of various kinds, to keep track of where they are living, etc. Our efforts to help people re-enter the workplace through our stores and workshops have been completely shut down. Partial unemployment benefits and reduced social charges have helped us, but we are truly under threat. For the first time in its history, Emmaüs France has had to solicit donations to ensure its survival.”

Temporary jobs

Maintaining connections

What do you do when you’re a specialist in providing staff for temporary jobs in the hotel and restaurant sector, which ground to a halt in February? Benjamin Leiba (H.13), co-founder of Badakan, decided to take care of his people. “We support our temps, our ‘badakaners’, in their dealings with the employment agency and we help them stay in contact with our clients. We’re also working with them on post-lockdown projects!”

Tour Operator

A bumpy flight

Tour operator Asia began to experience turbulence in January.  “First we had to deal with the cancellations of our trips to Asia, particularly to China. Then, beginning on March 15 when the sector was shut down completely, we managed to bring home our 450 clients still in Asia in just two weeks. This did not always go smoothly by any means. Seven of our clients were forcibly locked down in military barracks in Viet Nam,” says Guillaume Linton (M.99), Asia’s CEO. Ever since, his team has been coping with the postponement of thousands of trips that had been reserved in the spring. “A March 25 regulation grants us an 18-month credit, which will help keep us financially afloat and encourage our clients to plan future trips.” Guillaume is also considering “Asia-style” trips in France if international travel is still prohibited this summer. “Our know-how and high standards can be applied to travel here at home; we can focus on patrimony, culture, craftsmanship and unique local environments.” In hopes of getting trips to Asia back in the air in high season, October to March.


VivaTech highly anticipated … in 2021

Everything was on track for the 2020 edition of VivaTech, which in only four years has become Europe’s top tech trade fair. And then came covid 19, postponing the event until spring 2021. The year won’t be a complete waste, though. “VivaTech will still complete its main mission, which is to help start-ups become tomorrow’s digital powerhouses – a process that’s more complicated for them these days, particularly concerning financing,” explains Julie Ranty (H.10), VivaTech’s managing director.  For example, VivaTech’s innovation challenges organized in partnership with leading enterprises help start-ups make contact with clients and potential partners. The crisis has also boosted demand for digital tools. “VivaTech is by nature agile, capable of reinventing itself. The 2021 edition will be an opportunity to reflect on tech’s contribution to tomorrow’s economy and society.”


Time for class

“When schools were closed, we had to reinvent our profession in 24 hours,” exclaims Grégoire Orfanos (H.06), head of Epin middle school and high school, a private institution with over 650 students, located in a disadvantaged neighborhood. “We had to evolve from traditional classes to distance learning, help our teachers master new tools (GoogleDRive, Hangout, Zoom…), and cope with certain students’ difficulties, such as a lack of a computer or Internet access. In the end, we managed to achieve continuity in our teaching, and our teachers and students got even closer thanks to new kinds of connections, particularly text messages.” In good shape financially, the school can still pay its teachers’ salaries. “However, we expect some of our more disadvantaged families to have payment problems.”


A team effort

As a specialist in turning around industrial SMEs, Arcole Industries was well equipped to deal with the current crisis. “Our four subsidiaries – which are involved in bodywork for industrial vehicles, heating systems, industrial structures and manufacturing beer barrels – achieved a turnaround and are now profitable, with a healthy balance sheet,” explains Delphine Inesta (H.03), managing director. “Our priorities were to protect our employees’ salaries and stay financially sound. Our specialty is the business-to-business market: to date, none of our orders has been cancelled, just delayed. Our factories and construction sites, which were shut down from March 18 to April 6, have gradually started up again, with reduced teams, all wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and observing safety precautions.” Delphine praises the strong commitment of her employees. Will the crisis present new opportunities to acquire SMEs in difficulty? Maybe not. “It will be hard to know whether a company is in trouble because of this exceptional situation or because of intrinsic weaknesses.”

Published by Marianne Gérard

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