“Disaster doesn’t wait” — wisdom from alumnus Adrian Hunn - IMD Business School
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“Disaster doesn’t wait” — wisdom from alumnus Adrian Hunn

CEO Adrian Hunn, EMBA 2018, explains how a crisis- training seminar at IMD prepared him for the current challenges of COVID-19.
April 2020

This isn’t Adrian Hunn’s first venture into crisis mode.

While the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on businesses and markets around the world, the CEO of ZERAMEX is keeping calm. When his company lost 90% of its revenue overnight, Hunn was able to draw on valuable lessons learned in his time at IMD and implement a structured plan to ensure his company’s financial future.

From EMBA to CEO

Noted for its innovation sector, Switzerland is home to some of the world’s most respected dental implant companies. Dentalpoint AG is one of these companies, boasting 100% Swiss-made products that have revolutionized the industry, such as metal-free ZERAMEX ceramic implants.

Though content with his role as VP Sales and Marketing of ZERAMEX, Hunn wanted to deepen his understanding of finance and further develop his leadership skills. With IMD’s EMBA program, he was able to participate in classes as diverse as supply chain management and digital leadership, rounding out his expertise.

Business was booming and the company was in a period of full expansion – until the COVID-19 crisis hit. By the time Hunn officially took over as CEO on 1st January 2020, the illness had started to spread in China but had not yet been declared a global pandemic.

“I didn’t imagine that my first few months as CEO would be anything like this,” laments Hunn.

As the situation evolved, routine dental care was suspended in Switzerland and most of Europe. ZERAMEX suffered a striking blow to revenue, keeping just 10% of its former income. But despite the tremendous challenges Hunn faced, he turned to a set of proven steps learned at IMD to see him through.

IMD crisis training in action

As part of his EMBA degree, Hunn had participated in a three-day crisis training seminar. Led by the Swiss Armed Forces, this intensive simulation brought together a small group of participants who were required to manage a hypothetical crisis from beginning to end. From an underground fortress high in the Alps, the team learned the Swiss Armed Forces “5 plus 2” strategic plan to combat their crisis.

Just a month ago ZERAMEX was faced with a real crisis situation due to COVID-19. With a near-total reduction of orders, production facilities closed and staff furloughed, ZERAMEX felt intense financial strain. Though the company had been in “good shape” according to Hunn, even a successful business can suffer dire consequences from such an abrupt decline in revenue.

“Our business was decimated in a matter of days,” admits Hunn.

Compounded with the uncertainty in this historic liquidity situation, the company struggled to cope with the economic shocks of COVID-19 until Hunn implemented the 5-plus-2 strategic plan he had learned.

The plan includes five main steps: 1. Understand the problem; 2. Assess the situation; 3. Choose the desired outcome; 4. Plot an executable plan; 5. Execute said plan using proper delegation.

“This gives the crisis response much-needed structure,” says Hunn. “At the beginning there is often a lack of information, or untrustworthy information. It is important to gather all the information possible to get an overview before deciding what to believe — and what not to believe.”

In addition to the five consecutive steps listed above, there are two more key points. The first is developing a task force to handle the problem-solving process in parallel, guided by one overall leader working with a group of staff.

“My first instinct was to create a task force,” says Hunn, “and that’s exactly what I did for ZERAMEX.” In building his task force, Hunn made sure to assign set responsibilities to the different members. For example, liquidity planning to the CFO, internal and external communication to the chief of staff and securing the supply chain to the CTO.

Once a task force has been recruited, regular meetings are essential to monitor the ongoing situation closely. ZERAMEX’s task force is staying informed of the latest developments and is communicating regularly to staff and stakeholders.

“You do not have a complete picture at the beginning, so it is crucial to have immediate measures and contingency plans,” says Hunn. “Once thing I learned during the crisis simulation with the Swiss Armed Forces is that it is crucial to pause, take some time and not rush into decisions.”

The second additional key measure is visualizing information relevant to the crisis and displaying it on an operations board. This allows the task force to update all aspects of the crisis  — from challenges to operations — at all times.

Hunn says that although his team has a task list, this step has fallen by the wayside. With liquidity as ZERAMEX’s main concern and the difficulty of virtual communication, he confesses that energies were focused on steps that were more important to the company.

Communication under pressure

A key part of Hunn’s simulation focused on managing media relations during a crisis. While the CEO hasn’t needed to interact with the media thus far, learning how to handle the pressure of probing journalists had a profound effect on his ability to handle communication under stress. He applied the same principles to dealing with anxious staff instead.

“Disaster doesn’t wait — crises require immediate action,” says Hunn. “This also applies to communication, in order to provide transparency both to employees and the general public.”

By staying calm and sticking to his plan, Hunn was able to reassure the ZERAMEX team and limit their stress levels. He informed them honestly and openly so they would know he was doing his best to protect them.

“A crisis like this separates the wheat from the chaff, and staying loyal to your employees and customers will pay off in the long-term,” recommends Hunn.

IMD gave Hunn the tools he needed to create a battle plan for ZERAMEX to survive the coronavirus pandemic in his very first months as the leader of the company. He was able to act quickly because, just like the soldiers who guided him during his IMD crisis training, the CEO was able to act decisively and tackle any obstacle in his way.

“With all the measures we’ve put into place and a positive attitude, I am confident that ZERAMEX will emerge even stronger from this crisis,” says Hunn.

If practice does indeed make perfect, Hunn’s crisis training during his EMBA studies was the first crucial attempt at success. And while there are no guarantees in these unstable times of COVID-19, the fact that this is his second venture into crisis mode puts the CEO – and ZERAMEX – one step ahead of the rest.