Most of us take clean water for granted. Yet, according to the United Nations, more than two billion people around the world lack “safely managed drinking water,” putting them at risk for cholera, dysentery, typhoid, polio and more. Remedying the situation has been a challenge and complicated by COVID-19’s acceleration of inequality around the world. The pandemic creates risk for important progress made, but it also creates an opportunity to transform the way we live, work and interact.
“Water tends to be a ‘lagger’ in innovation,” says YPO member Mirka Wilderer, CEO of De Nora Technologies, a third-generation family-owned business that helps treat water sustainably and ensure access to clean and safe water. “This unexpected and turbulent 2020 has certainly inspired incredible opportunities to pivot, boost innovation and shape all aspects of the new normal. The disruption was a necessary force to shake up and wake up the industry.”
Population growth, urbanization and industrial expansion have increased the need for water at higher quality levels while more frequent catastrophic events and decreasing quality of raw water make it less available. In recognition of World Water Day, 22 March, here are seven insights into how De Nora is addressing environmental, industrial and societal needs during the current crisis and into the future.
Act, learn and adapt
The COVID-19 pandemic immediately and radically disrupted De Nora’s normal operations. The global company has facilities in Asia plus a marine business and its headquarters in Milan, Italy, the epicenter for the European outbreak.
“In those first few weeks, it seemed like the rules of the game were changing every 15 minutes,” says Wilderer. “It was like a big chess game of navigating people around the world to make sure that we could still deliver on customer commitments.”
With the shutdown of the economy, many of the ideas went from ‘nice to have’ but ‘my customer will never accept this’ to ‘must haves’ due to lack of traditional ways of engaging them. ”
— Mirka Wilderer, CEO of De Nora Technologies share
De Nora pushed forward by developing multiple plans, acting and adapting in real time. “Agility matters. This is not a time for perfect plans: 80% of something is better than 100% of nothing,” says Wilderer. “Let’s try it out for a week and see what we learn. If we’re still on the right path, then we’ll continue. And if we learn some new information, let’s adopt immediately, not continue for months along a certain path while the reality has already changed.”
Foster innovation and agility
De Nora’s diverse contingency plans resulted from its entrepreneurial network of cross-functional and international teams focused on top-level improvement priorities. Each team pursues weekly sprints to identify best practices, tap into modern-day approaches and ultimately drive enhancements across the entire business.
“In times of uncertainty, look for the inspiration in the usual places. I really tried to reach out to my partners, my customers, my employees at all levels of the organization to come up with the ideas and the more ideas the better,” says Wilderer. “To do that, it’s really about those connections, that constant interconnectedness within the organization but also within your ecosystem.”
Repurpose products and technologies
One team idea was to pivot from water disinfection to surface disinfection to help address the bleach shortage in March 2020. De Nora’s equipment uses water, salt and electricity to generate bleach onsite and kill pathogens in drinking water for more than 500 million people globally. Within a day, it repurposed gigantic trucks used to produce thousands of gallons of bleach a day in fracking to help clean public buildings and produce bottles to distribute to hospitals.
“The ability to help do something for our communities, our customers, our families, by leveraging and pivoting the equipment that we had for other uses created incredible momentum for us to play our part in helping navigate the everchanging environment of this,” says Wilderer.
Evolve the core business
Out of those early crisis mitigation activities, De Nora realized that the larger trucks could only help a limited number of customers with surface disinfection. Most offices needed a product that was considerably smaller.
“The more we thought about who else might need disinfectant onsite during a global pandemic to kill a virus, the more ideas for surface disinfection came to mind,” says Wilderer. “It became a startup momentum within our organization requiring us to reach way outside of our core water markets to serve customers across an entire spectrum of industries.”
To create a new business out of existing capabilities, De Nora built new sales channels, found new partners, developed new relationships and worked through additional approvals. This was accomplished, Wilderer says, “by constantly looking at not just what we had to pivot but what our customers had to pivot, and how can we help them to respond with speed where speed is required.”
Shape the new normal
Prior to the pandemic, De Noras technical experts traveled to sites to help customers optimize their water systems. However, COVID-19 changed all that: customers didn’t want technicians onsite and technicians didn’t want to travel unnecessarily. “With rules and habits involuntarily unfrozen, we saw incredible opportunity to accelerate our journey and actively shape the new normal,” says Wilderer.
De Nora had to quickly come up with a solution that allowed them to connect with customers, access their systems and provide service in real time. Within four weeks, they had scanned the possible solutions, selected augmented reality as the tool and launched De Nora Via, a visual assistance platform that enhances offsite service capabilities.
“We knew digital acceleration would be the key to meeting our customer’s needs today, wherever they are – no matter the circumstance – and with speed,” says Wilderer. “With the shutdown of the economy, many of the ideas went from ‘nice to have’ but ‘my customer will never accept this’ to ‘must haves’ due to lack of traditional ways of engaging them.”
We knew digital acceleration would be the key to meeting our customer’s needs today, wherever they are — no matter the circumstance — and with speed. ”
— Mirka Wilderer, CEO of De Nora Technologies share
Enhance digital capabilities
To better understand its customers, De Nora also prioritized investment in its SalesForce CRM ecosystem. “I tell the team the data is the ‘what,’ and then we need to get to the ‘so what’ is the data telling us to ultimately get to the ‘now what?’” says Wilderer.
De Nora tapped into that data to find patterns to proactively serve its customers, to move beyond servicing system failures to preventing them from happening and to keep their customers informed. “Understand everything is fluctuating and make sure to keep that close connection to your customers and not assume where you are, they are at or where they were at, they’re still at; but constantly have that external view to the market,” says Wilderer.
Prioritize responsible water use
Businesses in every industry consume significant amounts of water for use in everything from office facilities to core processes. With tighter environmental regulations and more stringent enforcement around the world, it is important for leaders to step up and embed more sustainable practices into their businesses. To do that, Wilderer says to educate yourself on sustainability issues, ensure water conservation in your processes by working with a water expert and develop a water specific sustainability program that goes beyond regulatory requirements.
“The sustainability topic is moving away from being regulatory-driven to a bigger cause that we all share in protecting our precious world and planet,” says Wilderer. “What can you put in place now to be set for the future and with the intent to conserve water, protect water and ensure that we have access to clean and safe water? Most importantly, lead the charge and lead the change.”