Rania Aikaterinari (HCAP): Let us prepare for the next battle

The wider public sector won the first battle. It was not surprised, as many may have expected; not only, it has not paralyzed by the pandemic, but it is still fighting. The CEO of the Hellenic Corporation of Assets and Participations (HCAP), Rania Aikaterinari, talks to ΑΝΑ – MPE about the pandemic that hit society and economy. Ms. Aikaterinari, head of the Hellenic Corporation of Assets and Participations or the ‘’Superfund’’, as is known the holding company in which companies of the wider public sector have been transferred, highlights the responsiveness of the management teams and the employees of the public enterprises to managing the crisis so far. She emphasizes that they worked methodically and continue to offer on the frontline, and she notes the lessons we need to learn from this unprecedented situation we live in. “We need to utilize better the public enterprises and to strengthen their contribution to society and economy, also through mobilizing the benefits of technology and the digital era” she stresses.

The complete text of the interview of Ms. Rania Aikaterinari to ΑNA – MPE and to Dimitrios Charontakis follows:

– What was the reaction of the large public sector companies included in your portfolio?

– The period was, and it is still a test for everyone, including the wider public sector. I believe that Greek citizens feel relieved, in finding that the taboos relating to chronic conditions of low productivity and delayed reactions no longer exist, as the large public sector companies did not paralyze. On the contrary, these companies showed crisis management capacity, flexibility and synchronized efforts, and they responded in unprecedented circumstances for everyone. The first victory was that the country was not surprised, our companies were not paralyzed. The management teams and the employees of the wider public sector withstood, and they continue, and we thank them for that.

The immediate target for all now is to adapt to the new circumstances as fast as possible and to continue to provide the services required to the citizens, along with the care for the protection of both the employees’ health and the citizens’ sense of security.

Fortunately, we won the initial battle with coordinated and substantial movements mad by the management teams and their competent departments in almost all the companies. They also utilized technological equipment and many possibilities that had not been used in the past, whereas the HRand IT departments facilitated employees who were on the front line (drivers, workers in production facilities, postmen, etc.).

– What were the priorities of the public enterprises in the first difficult hours?

– The first priority was the staff of the front line, to ensure the continuation of the operations, offering all critical services. For example, the employees in the post offices, the urban transportation of Athens, the central markets of Athens and Thessaloniki where thousands of wholesalers operate in fruits, meat and vegetables wholesale, the water and sewerage companies and many more. OF course they may not directly save lives like doctors and the nursing staff who are giving a heroic battle, but they continue to act as professionals at times of great uncertainties, despite their fears or worries.

Drivers, workers, stationmasters had to work, and they did not stop working, upon taking the necessary protection measures. The postmen must continue to deliver letters, parcels, medicines and pensions throughout the country, even in quarantined villages. Similarly, large electricity and water utilities like PPC, EYDAP and EYATH shall continue to offer their services, as well as the central food markets must continue to supply food to the urban centers of the country. This supply chain, which is of prime value to citizens and the economy, continues and operates and has managed so far to deal successfully with the challenges of this unprecedented crisis.

From the very first moment, the executive teams of the companies have taken measures, mobilizing their scientific staff in the field of hygiene and safety at work, so that all necessary measures for the protection of the employees and the public were being taken.

There was also operational readiness, including state owned enterprises where there is an increased contact with the public and the consumers. Furthermore, special crisis management teams have been set up, especially in the large companies (e.g. ΟΑSΑ, ΕLΤΑ), and a series of measures have been adopted. Examples include precautionary disinfection of buildings, critical infrastructure and means of transport (e.g. ΟΑSΑ fleet of buses and trains), relief measures of citizens in utilities bills (e.g. PPC, ΕΥDΑP και ΕΥΑTH) and operations with safety staff for safeguarding business continuity as per best practices.

At the same time, HCAP portfolio companies and their management teams continue to follow the official statements and instructions of the competent State authorities with professionalism and are ready for the adoption of additional measures, if deemed necessary.

– The crisis taught us how significant are some professions, to which we did not pay much attention.

– This is true. For instance, the post offices constitute a key factor of social cohesion and support for the economy. In the context of granting the universal postal service to the population, the transport of postal items and -certainly- letters is necessary for all the citizens. Furthermore, it should be noted that ELTA has recently successfully completed the distribution of pensions throughout the country, including in quarantined areas, upon taking all precautionary measures for staff and citizens. In this manner, it was safeguarded the stay at home of hundreds of thousands of pensioners who were served either at home or in open public places in the villages in collaboration with the Municipalities. Moreover, a cooperation with the Citizens’ Service Centers (KEP) is imminent, so that ELTA would distribute different kind of public certificates.

In addition, the public transportation, remains the backbone of the daily lives of the citizens in large urban centers, providing all basic services for maintaining the necessary urban mobility amid the pandemic, even if the frequency of routes has been reduced due to the decreased passenger traffic. Their management immediately took care for the disinfection, the supply of equipment for the safety and hygiene of employees and passengers, and the promotion of the electronic transactions.

The smooth food supply chain both in the urban centers and in the whole country is also vital for tackling the crisis. For this reason, the Central Vegetable Markets of Athens and Thessaloniki and the 10 Fish Markets of the country continue to operate, for the uninterrupted supply of the country, by adhering to the hygiene measures and the protection instructions given by the Ministry of Health and the National Organization of Public Health (EODY). They also promote supplemental measures, e.g. adjustment of working hours for avoidance of the overcrowding.

Also, the employees in the water and sewerage companies of Athens and Thessaloniki are working systematically in order to ensure the uninterrupted and safe supply of the most important good for life and each economic activity, which is the water, while simultaneously safeguarding the operation of critical infrastructure for the environment, such as the wastewater treatment installations in Attica and in Thessaloniki regions.

– How does the next day look like?

– We may be content and cautiously optimistic, as we are “winning” the first phase of a difficult battle, but the war still goes on. Unfortunately, HCAP subsidiaries have also been suffering the negative economic effects, as we see a considerable drop in revenue, and an increase of certain expenses (especially as regards the disinfection and specific purchase of new equipment due to the crisis), a possible increase of overdue receivables and thus a significant impact on the liquidity and working capital needs.

However, we must win this battle, by also making use also of the experiences we gained over the previous weeks, and also by monitoring how the European countries also react with respect to their own public enterprises. We have to fight this battle at a national and European level, in order to avoid economic contamination.

At the same time, the companies of the wider public sector must share with each other and be informed on best practices applied in various sectors. Also the citizens need to stay focused on reliable information and away from rumors and misinformation. The situation is far too serious to rely on “unofficial” sources of information.

We encourage our subsidiaries to develop cooperation relationships with each appropriate authority in order to maintain operations and continuity of services at the best possible level. We also encourage them to make use of new technologies in order to mitigate the negative consequences to the extent possible and to improve their decision-making processes based on data analytics.

Our companies are already interconnected via their European and global counterparties and professional bodies for exchange of best practices to tackle the crisis.

For example, all the European postal agencies are affected by the measures in force to restrict the virus. PostEurop (representing 52 postal agencies that employ 2 million people and handle 258 million delivery points) has recently issued a statement, by which it stresses upon the significance of the European postal companies for society and the European economy, amid the pandemic and communicates best practices.

The international association of public transport (UITP) issued a factsheet, providing recommendations to the global community of its members regarding the preparation mode of the transport networks for the pandemic and for the safety and the well-being of staff and passengers, since the safeguarding of the public transport availability at least at a minimum level is considered to be necessary.

We will act similarly after the end of the crisis for obtaining experience and good practices, in order to cope with the difficulties of the next day.

This dramatic crisis is a test for everyone but we are working hard to win the battle.

A big thank you from our heart goes to the doctors and the nursing and scientific staff of our country, the heroes of the front line.

Regarding the public enterprises, any hesitations or doubts that pushed us back in the past, are no longer valid. We need to move fast and use the benefits that could be drawn from the close collaboration of our companies, with solidarity and aiming at the transition to the new digital age. It’s a lesson that we have learnt, unfortunately, in a dramatic manner, but we must not let this pass us by.