27 March 2020

‘Increase production of your masks – fast’

What happened when a small Italian brand was suddenly forced to scale.

 

At home in Milan on a cold, sunny morning in the middle of January, Tommaso Puccioni picked up his phone. ‘I think you need to increase your production – fast.’

It was his distributor calling from Hong Kong. ‘He told me there was a new kind of SARS over there and that it was going to spread fast,’ Tommaso, 39, explains. ‘At first, I was sceptical. But the following week, orders started to rain in.’

Never mind that Banale sells toothbrushes, yoga mats, backpacks and travel pillows. All of the orders were for just one product: a washable, anti-pollution mask aimed at cycling commuters. Designed with a felt and polyester shell, it comes in grey and black with fluorescent straps: the kind of slick accessory that might look better suited to the runways of Milan than its hospital wards.

When Banale first started selling the masks, even Tommaso didn’t wear them. He wasn’t overly concerned with pollution or the spreading of bacteria, he says, ‘but we noticed there wasn’t anything similar out there, so we designed our own.’ Since then, Banale, an Italian travel accessories company founded by Tommaso and Stefano Bossi in 2015, has been thrust into the global respiratory mask sector projected to be worth over $37bn (and that was before the outbreak).

While it might sound like the ultimate case of being in the right place at the right time, especially for a business that up until this point sold anything between 1,000 and 10,000 masks per month, the sudden increase in demand brought with it an entirely new set of hurdles to overcome. Banale initially ramped up production of its masks five-fold. Looking back, planning on this kind of scale seems ridiculous. ‘Customers started asking for thousands of units for each model rather than dozens. Then tens of thousands,’ says Tommaso. ‘And after one week, I had the Bank of China asking for a million pieces.’

Banale continues to receive 200-300 emails and 200-300 phone calls everyday. Shortly before his interview with Courier, Tommaso took a call from the chief of the Italian Police, who asked for 150,000 masks; a few minutes before the interview, Tommaso turned down an offer from Portugal to buy 50,000 units at an inflated price. ‘We simply don’t have that production capacity.’

With all manufacturing done in Italy, Banale are one of the few companies that produces masks in Europe – around half of the world’s masks come from China, and a further 20% from Taiwan – while its business model is geared to selling its products worldwide. Over 90% of sales come from outside of Italy.

In early February, this seemed like a huge positive. China had banned mask exports and business was ‘booming’, Tommaso emailed Courier at the time. But given the global nature of the pandemic, the situation didn’t last long. Italy, like many other nations, started to severely restrict international exports of protective gear. And Banale’s business model was obliterated. The company shifted away from serving international consumers to becoming a domestic social utility company – the only reason why Tommaso and his two colleagues are still able to travel to the factory each day and continue production.

The best course of action was to sell directly to companies, opening up a new business line. ‘We decided to make the best of it in terms of volume, not change prices and dedicate special conditions to companies that need our mask for their workers to continue work,’ says Tommaso.

While competitors continue to raise their prices, Banale decided not to. Still, that hasn’t stopped the company from being accused of profiteering. A recent Instagram post promoting the mask with #coronavirus immediately received negative comments. ‘Masks are now tough to advertise,’ he concedes.

Despite high demand, the short-term is uncertain for Banale. The company isn’t planning to increase production further, and expects its factory to shut down soon – which is ironic, when you consider the product’s usefulness. In Italy, it is illegal to ship and courier items without wearing a mask, so delivery companies have been closing down because they cannot guarantee their drivers have access to them.

Looking past the pandemic also comes with huge uncertainty. ‘We sell low quantities of goods to numerous international accounts. We sell everywhere in the world – to retailers, wholesalers, distributors, DTC.’  It remains to be seen when, and under what conditions, exports of masks will resume.

Like many founders right now, Tommaso is working six days a week at a pace he acknowledges is ‘too tough’. Long-term strategy and what the future holds for Banale once Italy returns to its new normality is, at best, an afterthought. ‘At least our travel pillows are still selling well,’ he says. ‘But I have no idea why.’

Illustration: Timothy Durand

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