As part of the series of interviews dedicated to “Family Businesses in Times of Crisis”, we are happy to share the recent conversation of Rania Labaki, Associate professor and Director of EDHEC Family Business Centre, with Ana Maria Matallana Boggio, president and director of the foundation of Grupo Alfa, Fundación la Cayena. Grupo Alfa is a second-generation manufacturing family business specializing in wall and floor coverings in Colombia.

The COVID19 emergency has changed our lives. How the family and the business have been impacted ?

The siblings of the second generation, two sisters and one brother, are currently operating the business, with Carlos Alberto Boggio the CEO of the Group and the head of the family. They have stayed very united. Their cohesion has been the most important value in this crisis.
Still, the family members were not able to see each other often given the travel restrictions between Colombia and the USA, where some of the family live. Some members of the third generation who study in the USA, were not able to return to their schools and are studying at home. The family was also very sad because our older son had his High School graduation canceled whereas we were planning to celebrate this important occasion altogether.
When Colombia started to be in quarantine on March 22nd, the construction industry was not considered an essential business. So, we had to close all our stores and shut down all the six ceramic plants. Imports and export within Colombia have been restricted, just like all the other flights and transportation within the country and abroad. That makes it very hard to maintain the operations with the 2000 direct employees of the Group.

How did these changes translate into initiatives (or strategies)?

We have operated on several fronts. Our priority was to try to maintain all employees. But after one month of quarantine and no sales we had to start looking for other options.
The siblings in charge of operations are talking almost every day and supporting each other on all fronts. Each of them is responsible to communicate to their other family members what the business and the family are doing.
Through our foundation, we have supplied groceries, food and masks to the communities we directly impact. We also offered to the children and youth of the community a sport and values program to do at home with their parents. With the schools closed, domestic violence has increased in Colombia. For many children, school is their safe place. We believe that this type of programs, help vulnerable communities deal and manage this situation.
The vulnerable women entrepreneurship unit of the Foundation, who used to manufacture uniforms for the industries, is now manufacturing bio-security items (masks etc.) for the population. We also partnered with another social enterprise that works with vulnerable populations, to manufacture more bio-security items to be able to provide to vulnerable communities and also sell them in our stores.
One of the plants, that was closed, started manufacturing anti-bacterial gels and antibacterial cleaning material for hospitals and selling them to the population because these items became scare during the pandemic.
We have also developed a program for the vulnerable construction workers that are independent, www.apoyaunmaestrodeobra.co and who became unemployed because of this situation. We provided them both with food and safety kits (hydroalcoholic gels, gloves, masks) so they can start working in secure conditions.
Because all our sales channels were closed, we structured a work home plan for almost all the workers. For the ones who will need to go to the plants, we are structuring a program with World Bicycle Relief Foundation to see if those employees can get a bicycle and use that type of transportation.
The web page, www.alfa.com.co incurred significant changes as the company had to adapt to online sales very quickly, although very few people buy floors online. The logistics of the company changed too as we had to reorganize all the supply chain to adapt to the pandemic and the new way of selling.

Family businesses are known for their values of social responsibility, acting as ambassadors of the territories in which they are rooted. How did these manifest themselves in your country?

We have united forces with Colombia Cuida Colombia, which is an organization that unites companies, people and family business to help Colombia. It has been a very productive work with other family businesses, family foundations, individuals, and even direct competitors to unite forces to save people’s lives and help each other in this economic crisis. This initiative focuses in these areas: nutrition, health supplies for hospitals, mental health, and financial help. The web page of this foundation is www.colombiacuidacolombia.com which means “ Colombia takes care of Colombia”.

How are your preparing for the post-crisis phase, in line with medium or long-term challenges the family business will be facing?

The Business has suffered a big impact. Strategies, teams, and new ideas are being implemented by the day. The government has not helped much big companies, and we had to restructure all the future plans. We have set up a crisis team to approach all areas of conflict and conversations with stakeholders and with the government. We also have set up work teams to deal with each area of the business to be able to work from home, be productive, and be able to survive. The future plans have been adjusted to survival mode, working at home and complying with all the required bio security measurements to be able operate.

In the last few weeks we had a good opportunity to stop and listen to ourselves. With a positive attitude, is it possible to see this emergency as an opportunity to improve our lives and businesses? If yes, how?
It has been a 24-hour job for the family involved in the business. We have not stopped much to think, we just do. We definitely have a positive attitude, we need to pass that to all the family, stakeholders, and employees.
We hope that all this effort will bring not only a better company, but an opportunity to adapt quickly to change. We also use this opportunity to teach the younger generation that things can change very quickly, and that they need to study hard, work hard and whatever they decide to do, not to take for granted what they have.