SPOKEN – Episode 2

In the second edition of Spoken, Sanjeev talks about how the businesses are responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus and answers questions from colleagues around the world. He’s joined by GFG’s Global Head of HR Denise Timns and Guillaume de Goys, Managing Director of ALVANCE Aluminium Dunkerque.


JUSTINE GREENE: Hello and welcome to ‘Spoken’ – the brand-new podcast for GFG Alliance colleagues across the world.

I’m Justine Greene and in this our second edition we’ll talk more about the coronavirus situation and hear how the business has been coping. As a reminder, myself and all our guests are joining the conversation remotely.

First, on the line back with us is Sanjeev Gupta, Executive Chairman of the GFG Alliance from his home in Wales. Hello, again Sanjeev.


JUSTINE: Now Sanjeev, we launched the podcast a few weeks ago, what sort of response have you been getting from colleagues?

SANJEEV: It’s been welcomed quite widely. I think getting updates by email especially for such a long period and not being able to have personal contact, I think people are missing that. So to at least have this medium of communication, I’ve had lots of messages from people saying how brilliant the idea is and how much they are looking forward to the next edition.

JUSTINE: Last time you mentioned how unusual it is for you to spend so much time at home – so how have things been settling down for you?

SANJEEV: It’s quite interesting, even to be able to sit for dinner in the evening with my children is something which I’ve never experienced before not to this extent. Normally, I mean that would happen a few times in a year and to have that almost every day now for over a month, is quite incredible.

I have a very hectic, had a very hectic life in terms of travel and so on, and that meant that I couldn’t really look after health and so on. But now I’m working out every day. So when I reappear out of this lockdown people will see a different Sanjeev. So there’s lots of pluses.

I mean I know it’s obviously terrible and it’s very frustrating not to be able to meet people. And the sort of stuff I do I enjoy very much interacting with all sorts of colleagues and customers, suppliers. This is what I’ve done on my life, so it’s very frustrating from that perspective, but there is certainly lots of pluses as well.

JUSTINE: Well it sounds like you’re happy and healthy at home. The novelty hasn’t worn off for your children yet, then?

SANJEEV: No, they seem to be liking it more and more, which is a bit scary. So I’m sure it will turn at some point but so far so good.

JUSTINE: Good to hear. We’ll talk in more detail with our guests shortly, but can you give us an overview of how the business is progressing in the face of the pandemic?

SANJEEV: It’s very mixed. There are places which got impacted very early on, places like Italy and we all know about the tragic history there. So there are things now begin to reopen. Similarly, in other parts of Europe as well some plants which were shut for a while, have been restarted. Whereas on the other extreme, we are shutting other plants now, which are getting impacted.

Impacted in two ways, one is obviously in terms of people, availability of people in terms of to do the safety who are not infected, or not scared of being infected. But the other is demand.

So I guess the first part of it, the impact of this virus on ability to operate has diminished quite a bit. More and more we’re finding that we are able to operate. Let’s say now, the real issue is this lull in demand, which is inevitable for a period of time. So we’ve got to work out how to balance that.

It is very mixed, but the encouraging thing is at least the impact of the virus on our ability to operate, i.e. getting enough people at the plants and work that way, is getting better.

Also we’re getting used to it. Some people are getting used to working with social distancing, taking all the measures to work and operate safely. I think obviously people are getting used to that. That is making it easier and better as well.

JUSTINE: Obviously, though everyone is interested in when and how we’ll emerge from the crisis. Has the business begun planning for a time when people can fully come back to the workplace?

SANJEEV: Well this is absolutely a core key for me, especially over the last week, I really focused on every business saying, okay, we’ve got issues right now, and some of them are incredibly important and existential issues, so we need to work out how we navigate our way through this very short-term crisis. But equally we need to have our eyes very much set on what is does the world look like after this? What do we do and how do we come out stronger from this unfortunate crisis?

So in terms of what that means is that each plant, which is, if you like, having temporary shuts or reduction in production, I’m asking them to make plans for when they are expecting to normalise. What does normal look like? What does ramp up look like again? When do you expect? So we’re going to keep a very close eye on developments in every country, and every business that operates to work out how exactly to fine tune the situation so we are ahead of the curve.

JUSTINE: OK thanks for the moment Sanjeev. And we’ll meet our first guest next.

Well on the line now is Denise Timns, Global Head of Human Resources at GFG Alliance. Hi Denise.


JUSTINE: Have you found life working at home is settling into a new normal?

DENISE: Well I definitely think some of the strangeness has eased over the past 5 weeks and it does feel like we’ve got a new normal. Everyone is looking at ways to help each other and stay connected. Technology is certainly our saviour at the moment. You know, continuing with our meetings and calls even remotely, has helped me massively.

Sometimes I do feel my anxiety building when I think about the whole situation and the impact it has on everyone, but sharing my feelings with others has really helped. You know, whether it’s colleagues, friends, family, as most of us seem to be experiencing the same things.

JUSTINE: Have you got many distractions at home? Or is it business as usual?

DENISE: For me, luckily, it’s business as usual. Apart from maybe the chickens escaping from next door and coming up to my doors.

JUSTINE: Oh my goodness. As head of Human Recourses you are clearly in touch with colleagues all over the world; what sort of feedback are you getting, particularly when it comes to people’s mental health at the moment?

DENISE: I think everyone has their own way of coping in this situation, but the majority of feedback I’m getting is around connecting with others and how much it helps them. Keeping some humour or banter in their meetings as if we’re all in the office together and laughing as much as we can in this situation.

There’s a real sense of friendship building. Things feel more personal. As we are acting largely from our homes, you can see snippets of each other’s lives and have conversations around what you see. Having said that, we are all making sure our cameras are pointed towards the cleaner areas of our houses.

JUSTINE: (laughs) I think we’ve all realised how important communication is now with people unable to meet face to face. In addition to our podcast, is there anything else you’re doing to help keep everyone in the business connected?

DENISE: Yes, we are checking in with as many of our people as we can with various different mechanisms that we’ve got available to us, asking them directly how they are feeling and what else we as a business can do for them, particularly around mental and physical health.

Technology is our saviour currently, so we need to ensure everyone has access to it where possible. I’d really encourage anyone that has issues with technology to speak to their managers or HR teams, to see if there are ways we can support everyone.

I think we have Skype, Teams, WhatsApp, email to stay in touch. There is also a new global intranet launching soon for the group. It will be called The HUB. This helps us create a single global community for GFG people and with everyone’s feedback, it can support our teams more and more.

Our global culture and performance team has put their hand up to be largely repurposed to focus on mental health and well-being, to ensure we are doing everything we can to provide support where needed. Our check-ins will help shape this. So we need to hear from as many people as possible as we reach out over the coming weeks.

JUSTINE: Okay thanks very much Denise. Sanjeev coming back to you, it’s good to hear about these developments, but can give us an update on any measures around the security of GFG colleagues’ jobs?

SANJEEV: Well, luckily so far, we’ve had great support from governments, so even where we’ve had temporary situations, we’ve been able to access some amount of support. And the company has also been able to augment that with its own resources.

Senior colleagues have also helped. Senior colleagues across the company have taken sacrifices on their salaries for a short period, in order to assist with us, maintaining a level of support for our staff, which is having to temporarily stay at home, who are not able to work temporarily.

So we’ve managed it so far so good, and I am hoping this will continue. Support from governments is unprecedented and continues to be. Our businesses, our sectors are fundamental, so I believe that eventually we will get back to normal, or even in some cases will come out stronger from this. And hence our industry has a place and hence everybody who works in it has a place.

JUSTINE: Alright, well moving on now, do stay with us. Next, we’re heading to France.

Our next guest is Guillaume de Goys, MD of ALVANCE Aluminium Dunkerque in France, which is Europe’s largest aluminium smelter. Hello Guillaume, thanks for joining us.

GUILLAUME de GOYS: Hello. I’m very pleased to join you.

JUSTINE: Guillaume, for colleagues who may not know, can you tell us a bit about the GFG’s aluminium operation in France, as we’ve already mentioned, a very big operation.

GUILLAUME: Yes, it is. So we are producing nearly 280,000 tonnes of aluminium, and aluminium operations in France, that’s not only in Dunkerque. We also have ALVANCE Wheels France producing wheels and ALVANCE Poitou producing cast parts for the automotive industry. So those 3 companies all belong to the ALVANCE Group.

Back to Dunkerque, we are producing primary aluminium for the automotive, packaging and construction sectors. And our annual turnover is about $600 million per year. And we ship our products mainly in Europe, namely France and Germany being the two main destinations.

JUSTINE: On the last podcast we acknowledged that there are some roles in the business where key workers are still required to come into work. Bearing that in mind, how have you managed to adapt the business in France to operate under coronavirus restrictions?

GUILLAUME: Yes, as you may know, in France it has been quite sudden and when President Macron announced the lockdown, we had to organise very, very quickly. So what we’ve done is to organise all the teams in order to limit the drop in production, and we have implemented very, very strict measures for distancing these infections. And also put all the barriers measure to prevent the transmission of the virus within the factory. And at the same time we faced very significant increase of the absenteeism rate. We’ve seen more than 50% of absenteeism rate in some teams, and mainly to be able to protect and to let at home, all the fragile employees.

JUSTINE: Okay, so I wonder, can you give us a little more detail about those ‘at work’ safety measures for colleagues?

GUILLAUME: Yes, so for example, we’ve organised all the way in the factory to separate the pedestrian flow from the other flows. We’ve put in place body measures at the entering gate. We have modified the shift pattern to limit the number of people in the changing rooms. We’ve also reorganised the comm team. We have postponed all major projects, and other non-essential maintenance tasks in order to limit the number of people entering the site.

JUSTINE: Alright, well thanks very much for joining us Guillaume. Sanjeev is still with us. Sanjeev you described aluminium last time as the ‘metal of the future’, you must be heartened by how the teams are delivering at the moment to meet demand?

SANJEEV: Aluminium is something which, much like blast furnaces, or even more [unclear] blast furnaces. Once you shut it’s very expensive and takes a long time and it’s very expensive to bring back. And even after you’ve brought it back, it takes a very long time to actually reach a normal level of operations.

So to protect that production is difficult. We have two smelters in France and in Scotland. We’ve taken some extreme measures as Guillaume was talking about and I’m very proud of the people, because in the early days when this crisis broke out or really invaded Europe, there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, of course, there still is now. But there’s now a better understanding. And I think people are beginning to reconcile with it. But in those early days, for people stand up and want to protect their plant, was very, very endearing.

But also in Scotland, there was a point where we were actually planning to lock the plant down and have people move in, create emergency bedding and so on. So almost sort of create a self-contained island and people to be willing to do that for the sake of saving their plant, was very endearing support.

I’m very proud of both the Dunkerque and Lochaber in terms of how they continued operations through this difficult time, protected our key assets and also served the economies they’re in. Lochaber has been supplying aluminium for oxygen tanks, for example, in the UK, so serving their economy in these critical times.

JUSTINE: Alright, thanks for that Sanjeev. Now, coming next, it’s over to you and your questions.

This is Spoken and I’m Justine Greene. Now on each podcast we give you the chance to get your questions direct to Sanjeev, and we’ve had a great response from you on email, so thanks very much if you’ve been in touch. Let’s get our first question this time.

HILARY: Hi Sanjeev, it’s Hilary Newstead, Programme Manager for SIMEC Energy, Australia. I’m really excited about the commitment you’ve made to carbon neutrality by 2030. Understandably though, there’s a huge focus on staying business activities at the minute. What are your thoughts on what we should be doing to ensure we don’t lose sight on delivering on CN30 and other sustainability objectives?

SANJEEV: That’s a very good question. So first my point is that industrial activity and human activity will resume and when it does the threats and dangers which we have to our environment will be ever prevalent. So I don’t think anything changes in terms of that pressure.

The second thing is, the second point is to understand that this is not just an initiative for climate change or for protecting the climate. A change is very much an economic initiative. So we talk  about our initiative, for example, in Australia, the sort of project we have in Whyalla is significantly cheaper than other forms of electricity, which exist currently.

The other future bigger plans we have will bring that cost down even further. So it’s actually first and for foremost an economically beneficial activity. It doesn’t need any subsidy. It stands up on its own feet.

And the third point I would make is as we come out of this crisis, every government is going to look to see how they can provide stimulus to their economies. How they can increase manufacturing activity and so on, and how can they create more employment and more investment.

And obviously, as human beings we always look to the future not the past and many of the industries which are now looking at the future through climate change initiatives, will be centre stage. So I believe that the investment in climate change and carbon neutrality, and hence our own initiatives to get to carbon neutrality by 2030, will get even more attention and even more support than we had previously.

And from my own perspective, my commitment to CN30 is absolute and we will double down on that effort rather than reducing it as we come out of this.

JUSTINE: Okay thanks for that Sanjeev. Now here’s our next question.

UDAY GUPTA: Hello Sanjeev, this is Uday Gupta, Managing Director Adhunik Metaliks Ltd in India. We do expect a modified if not reverse globalization to shape up in the post COVID-19 world. Considering a scenario where global supply chain distancing goes up with China, will India attract strategic investment as a priority?

SANJEEV: Again a very good question. A very good point. As you know GFG, and me in particular, have for a long time championed local industry, local supply chains. Our model is not based on globalisation, it’s very much based on a circular, local economy, using local resources to serve the local economies.

So that is something which we believe is the right way of evolving the economies of our different countries anyway.

Now, in the light of what’s happened and what is happening, every country is now looking at their own supply chains. You could almost say the era of globalisation is over. It is definitely going to be local supply chains become important for two reasons. One is as we all know, when we have a crisis like this, where we have a pandemic or you have a war or you have any change in world order, anything which can cause disruption will mean that you cannot rely on global supply chains as much as we have done over the last few decades.

And hence, having self-sufficiency is critical and important. So one is this lens of sort of being able to operate within your own common industry, your own means and your own requirements, which has become very obvious to this situation where we are locking down borders.

The second will be we need to invest. Governments will need to invest to regenerate economies and hence investing in the local supply chains, local manufacturing will become ever more important. This is true for every country which we at least work in at the moment and each and every one of them will double down on local production, local manufacturing.

And it is very true for India, because again it is actually one of the youngest populations, largest populations in the world. It has to grow, and hence again for India to focus on local supply chains just gives it another opportunity to push its growth. Prime Minister Modi has clearly said from the very beginning that India is not able to rely on foreign supply chains. And clearly, we will be focusing as much as practically possible on our own manufacturing processes, which will definitely attract more investment to industry and more foreign investment as well.

JUSTINE: Right thank you. Now here’s one more question for you.

DAVID KITCHER: Hello Sanjeev, my name is David Kitcher, I’m the Technical, Systems and Logistics Superintendent for the Sydney Rolling Mill in Australia. What about GFG’s response to COVID-19 makes you most proud?

SANJEEV: So, as you know our 3 values which are dear to GFG are change, family and sustainability. What this crisis has shown us is that these values we do believe in, all of us, and we’ve demonstrated this in being able to adapt very quickly, which is our first value, which is change. We always want to be able to change quickly, adapt quickly and be ahead of the curve as I keep saying.

So, I’ve seen everybody, in every country, working in different ways. Working from home, linking in different ways, communicating in different ways, which is incredible. The pace at which we’ve been able to adapt to this crisis is heartening because it means we are true to our flexibility and our ability to adapt.

The second is our family value. Actually, I have so many people telling me that they are talking to each other far more than they used to, which is ironic given the situation. But I think it’s brought people closer because crisis does that. It brings you and your family closer because you sort of all huddle together. And even though we can’t huddle physically, I see a lot more interaction, a lot of discussions.

A lot of people working together collaboratively, tolerating each other people, which is very difficult because when you’re talking on telephones or videoconferences and so on, it’s very difficult to adapt to each other because normally you would sort of shake hands, you would offer drink, you do something and you sort of get on with things. Now we haven’t got any of those normal social measures or levers that you play to, to adjust to each other, and yet people are actually adjusting and managing each other and working as teams and working as a family.

So I’m really very proud of the culture which so quickly. I mean think about how many businesses GFG has acquired and how many different cultures have come into our organisation and yet our core values are something which are showing clear signs of being at the heart of everybody’s minds. So I’m very proud of that.

JUSTINE: Good to hear that people are coming together even though they are apart.

Well, many thanks for those questions. If you’d like to ask a question to Sanjeev or another senior leader, do send us an email with your question to spoken@gfgalliance.com, that’s spoken@gfgalliance.com.

You can also email us your comments and any ideas you might have for the podcast.

Okay, Sanjeev, thanks very much for joining us, and I’ll look forward to being with you again soon.

SANJEEV: Thank you, Justine. It’s really, really exciting to be on this podcast. I’m very much looking forward to the next one. And great questions from some of the colleagues from far and beyond.

JUSTINE: Well, on our next podcast we’ll continue to cover the issues caused by coronavirus and of course keep you up to date with the very latest news and views from across the GFG business. From me Justine Greene, Sanjeev Gupta, Denise Timns and Guillaume de Goys, thanks for listening and goodbye.

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SPOKEN – Episode 2