Interview with Blanca Hernández, President of the Ebro Foods Foundation

Blanca Fernández

When did you decide to take decisive steps to try to alleviate the effects of the emergency?

As already pointed out in the past, our international presence was decisive in enabling us to gain early awareness of the scope the COVID-19 outbreak was going to have in Spain.  Therefore, by the time the crisis reached its high point, we had already decided to donate a million euros to help allay some of the most compelling needs. 

The first thing we did was to contact the NGOs and foundations we usually work with to find out how the situation was affecting them, whether they were experiencing any difficulties, if they needed help, most of all just to let them know that we were there for them. When the health crisis burst on the scene, we contacted hospitals directly, mainly in Madrid, where the outbreak hit hardest, to offer them our help in buying approved medical supplies. It wasn’t easy because times were difficult, but in the end we were able to reach most of them and channel help to them.

What initiatives did you take, and which organizations were the recipients?

“We have undertaken quite a broad range of solidarity projects in Spain, over 80 since the crisis began.”

We have undertaken quite a broad range of solidarity projects in Spain, over 80 since the crisis began. Our initial efforts were focused on helping to get the health emergency under control at our hospitals and on meeting the needs of the staffers on the front lines, health care and law enforcement personnel, and the like; but we also, for instance, provided assistance to truck drivers, who were spending many long hours at the wheel to keep the market shortages at bay. From there we moved on to nursing and retirement homes, and we are now fully immersed in the social aspects of the emergency, mainly by supporting community associations, Parish charity associations, service organizations, NGOs, etc. in their food solidarity projects for large numbers of families that have been hit by the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus emergency.

I should stress that it is not just the Ebro Foundation that has donated resources to help assuage the pandemic’s effects. The entire Group, as a whole, has been involved: all its subsidiaries, from the smallest to the largest, have made great efforts to offer assistance to the social groups that have been hardest hit by the crisis in their respective countries.

Was it hard to get all those supplies together in such a short time?

Procurement did in fact turn out to be extremely complicated, and not everything could be obtained in record time. The first problem we faced was that the market was completely overloaded, and as so often happens in such cases, there was no shortage of profit seekers, and we were not specialists in the field. Our international experience, though, stood us in good stead by placing a wide network of contacts at our disposal, and we were able to use that network to find the suppliers we needed, though officially approved materials were very hard to come by. To take just one example, supplies of ventilators quickly sold out in Europe, but we were able to purchase six from one of Germany’s largest manufacturers. In view of the shortages, we had to turn to China to get them, but we were unable to find suitable supplies and equipment there; they were mostly not officially approved, the market was full of intermediaries, brokers, scammers, and so forth, so we thought it would be better not to go down that road. Fortunately, shortly afterwards, one of the main tertiary referral hospitals put us in touch with reliable suppliers, and we were able to quickly and safely purchase a whole range of other supplies, such as surgical masks, tests, protective gowns, and the like, which arrived just when they were needed most. Truly an experience!

“… we have just lived through an impressive moment of solidarity and cooperation. Everyone knew that we had to march in step, and thanks to that we have been able to do wonderful things.”

Coordinating all these solidarity measures calls for a lot of planning. How were you able to organize the specific initiatives so as to meet the actual needs of the recipient groups concerned.

I think different factors come into play. For one thing, keeping in touch as directly as possible with the groups or organizations you are working with, so you can ascertain firsthand what they really need and you can directly follow up all your activities. But conversely, you also need to keep in mind that for some things forming alliances and working with other foundations, companies, authorities, etc. can be much more productive. To my mind, what has happened is that we have just lived through an impressive moment of solidarity and cooperation. Everyone knew that we had to march in step, and thanks to that we have been able to do wonderful things. A third factor, of course, is personal engagement. In Ebro this engagement was total at all levels, from the very top executives down to the employees, and it has been extremely gratifying to see how everyone put their best foot forward to do their part.

Did the Foundation act as the central authority guiding activities, or did the brand owners lend a hand on their own? How did you coordinate actions of this kind?

As I said before, it was a mixed bag of measures, some were done by the Foundation in direct coordination with the Group’ brands, especially food donations, but others were done by the Foundation acting alone or in cooperation with other stakeholders. At the same time, each company has carried out its own charitable projects, just as they ordinarily do. Charitable work within Ebro is carried out jointly by the Ebro Foundation and by the subsidiaries, there is no single structure spanning all the projects carried out worldwide. It would not be practical to direct everything from Spain. But we do work together on certain programs where we can all combine our knowledge and experience.  Ebro’s structure is quite flexible, dynamic, and cohesive, so it is conducive to coordination.

Do times like these work to consolidate a company’s social responsibility?

“… companies that have CSR as a central component running all through their management structure are most resilient when faced with a crisis.”

A company’s social responsibility program cannot be improvised just in times of emergencies. It is something that has to be a part of the company’s own strategy, part of its management and culture, and that was the basis for everyone’s swift engagement in the face of this emergency. I think that what times like these show us is that companies that have CSR as an integral part of their business model are the companies that were in the best position to respond fastest to the challenges and demands of the pandemic.

To conclude, what teachings do you think we can take away from the pandemic as far as CSR is concerned?

Elaborating on what I have already said, one of the most important things we have learned is that companies that have CSR as a central component running all through their business structure are most resilient when faced with a crisis. Such factors as flextime and work-life balance measures like remote working, personal health and safety, job security, value chain sustainability, team commitment, social welfare, and business or public-private sector alliances were crucial to being able to respond quickly to the health and social emergency triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

We should not overlook the fact that no progress can be made if we do not address social and environmental concerns.