Pandemic Panic? Not Samsonite’s CEO

It’s not business as usual at Samsonite International—but business goes on, says CEO Kyle Gendreau.

Travel advisories and restrictions escalating, global market reeling, a pandemic spreading across the globe—now might not be the most opportune time for a travel-affiliated company to launch a sustainability journey in celebration of its 110th year. Kyle Gendreau, CEO of the $3.89 billion luggage company Samsonite, opted to press on anyway.

“At a time of anxiety over business performance and, in this case, world anxiety, sending the message that we will come out on the other side of this and keeping people in a positive state of mind is a huge piece of what I’m doing,” he says. “A wonderful story you would have seen in 2020 will likely get overshadowed by the current climate with coronavirus. It will have an impact on our business—on most businesses, to be honest—and we are hyperfocused on the health and safety of our employees and doing all the right things. But we will come out on the other side of this. I take a lot of personal pride in putting the message out that we’re continuing to stay focused on our long-term aspirations and goals.”

It’s a perspective honed by experience weathering crisis-induced downturns, from 9-11 to SARS. C-Suite executives who’ve been in the trenches understand the turbulent times ahead and, perhaps most key, the need to prepare for the eventual recovery. “Each one is a little bit different, but if you look at prior events, there’s always a moment where the world kind of gets stuck, and that’s the moment we’re in now,” says Gendreau, who came into the CEO role in 2018 after serving as its CFO for more than a decade. “It will have some cycle, and then when it comes back, it comes even stronger than kind of when the disruption came in. People’s desire, propensity to travel is very, very strong.”

Yesterday, Gendreau spoke with Chief Executive about how his company is coping with the coronavirus crisis.

What steps have you taken with regard to the health and safety of your teams around the world?

We’re following all the guidance that we’re getting from authorities and doing all the right things. We’ve got terrific teams in China. Everybody’s safe there. We’re giving people flexibility from a work perspective as needed. Fabio [Rugarli], who runs our Europe business, lives in Milan, so he’s doing a lot of work from his kitchen table, but is still highly passionate about what we’re doing and managing the organization to get to the other side of this.

We’ve been shifting our meetings to video conferencing. Just recently, we shifted a GMM meeting we were having here in the U.S. in Mansfield to a video conference. I personally love in-person meetings because a lot of what happens in meetings are around the meeting—at the dinner and so on—but technology is such that you can be highly effective in meeting digitally and in managing the business in a different way. We’ve actually learned a lot in the midst of this about using that digital technology. That GMM was one good example. We had a terrific innovation meeting where, in a short window of time, you got to see what every region is focused on. It was very powerful.

Have you been able to apply any lessons learned when events like 9-11 and SARS disrupted travel?

I wouldn’t necessarily say anything specific other than holistic learnings, such as to be ready for when it comes back, because it will come back. The world is in a difficult situation, and people’s anxieties are high while we all try to digest [what’s happening]. But that will run its course and get to a point where it starts to come back. So the challenge is how as an organization do we put ourselves in the position so that we can really be ready? We’re doing a lot of work there.

This [crisis] has already impacted things like sourcing and factories. So how do we work with factories on one when they’re coming back online? How do you manage inventories and working capital in such a way that you don’t end up with a balance sheet challenge? How do you not miss the opportunity when it comes back? How do you manage your organization when you’re in it? You need to immediately move into a bit tighter management of cost and shift and stall decisions, which is exactly what we’re doing. Not stopping them, stalling so that you’re ready it when the business is moving again. Those are a lot of learnings.

How are you keeping morale up when everyone is distracted by a constant barrage of ominous headlines?

Internally I’m a little bit kind of crying watching kind of what’s going on, and I’m not alone. Everybody is. But in any leadership position, you should be thinking about where you’re going in three and five years. These things that come along that you have to navigate, you navigate. But it’s not what I spend all of my days thinking about. We do focus on the short term. I spend a lot of my time talking to everybody across the globe. I’m probably doing daily calls with Fabio in Milan and Frank [Ma], who runs our China business.

But the reality is this whole organization is heading in a direction and we also need to make sure that we continue there. We have 15,000 employees in a hundred countries, an incredible organization of people who are really passionate about what we’re doing. So I try to balance my energy and enthusiasm with kind of detailed focus. It’s important for employees to feel this positive reassurance about where we’re going, which is why it is important to talk about this sustainable journey on which we’re taking the business and our commitment to move toward carbon neutrality and increase the use of sustainable materials in our products. Keeping people in a positive state of mind that we’re all in this together and we will come out on the other side all together on this is a huge piece of what I’m doing.

We’ve been around for 110 years. We’ve navigated lots over that time period. We’ll do the same here.