By Karen Peattie

TWO prominent business people based in Italy have shared their experiences from Milan during the coronavirus lockdown, warning Scottish firms of difficult times ahead but opportunities for those that change the way they do business in the future.

Sharon Reilly, managing partner of employment law firm Reilly & Tesoro and John A Stewart, managing partner at Fieldfisher, a European law firm with market-leading practices in sectors including retail, life sciences, financial services, and energy and natural resources, both admit that their businesses were unprepared to deal with a crisis on the scale of the Covid-19 crisis.

Answering questions yesterday during a Glasgow Chamber of Commerce webinar hosted on the Zoom platform by member Russell Walker of Russell Walker Training, Ms Reilly, who has been based in Italy for 25 years, said that her company’s early decision to work from home rather than in its office in Milan’s city centre before the wider lockdown enabled systems to be set up for her team more quickly.

“From February 24 we self-isolated, not knowing what was to come,” she said. “It was a seamless transition on that day, from working in the office to working from home. After that there was a flurry of activity as we advised clients followed by a ‘wait and see’ scenario, effectively taking each day as it comes.”

The Italian government, she pointed out, stepped in quickly to extend across the business spectrum a system already in place to support the manufacturing sector.

“We were not prepared at all,” Mr Stewart said. “I don’t think any business in Italy was.”

Mr Stewart, who is also chairman of Airport Handling S.p.A at Milan Malpensa airport, said that in his view the lockdown came too late, and warned of challenging months ahead for airports and aviation around the world.

Both agreed, however, that one of the positive aspects of the current situation that businesses have found themselves in is the transition to new forms of communication.

Ms Reilly added: “There’s been a revelation with people learning how to use new technologies and showing willingness to embrace these platforms.

“What this has told me already is that while I will still want to have some sort of office presence because I like the buzz of the city and seeing colleagues, it will definitely be a case of downsizing our premises.

“We’re a country with a strong manufacturing presence and you can’t set up a Fiat production line in your kitchen but we have seen ways here that businesses are adapting – Italians have always been innovative and enterprising. It’s a whole new world and we’ve pushed the reset button.”

The webinar was in association with the Chamber’s 1783 President’s Network Team which has about 350 members operating in the Glasgow City region and beyond.