Bernhard Schmidt’s business is mechanical engineering for textile finishing with business partners and customers all over the world. Actually. Then came the Corona pandemic and Nepata Vertrieb GmbH suddenly found itself in the international battle for face masks. “And suddenly we were involved in a strange game,” recalls the Hallertau entrepreneur. About the chronology of a challenge.
January 2020: The world still looks to China
The coronavirus has reached Germany. A man in Starnberg County is infected. Other cases are reported in countries such as the USA and Taiwan. In Wuhan Province in China, where the virus originated, the number of infected people rises to 270.
It’s crazy to think back on that. The Corona virus has been mentioned in the same breath as BSE or swine flu, diseases that happen mainly in other countries and in the news, not in our country. Bernhard Schmidt already had a differentiated view of things back then. When he is on the phone with long-time business partners and friends in China, an urgent warning reaches him: This is coming to you too, wear masks. “At that time, the prevailing opinion was still that masks were of no use at all,” he recalls. Face masks – what is now normality, was unthinkable in January. Just as inconceivable as the speed with which the Corona situation would also come to a head in Germany.
February 2020: The situation comes to a head
The RKI still considers the risk of the Corona virus for Germany to be low. Travelers from Wuhan are isolated as a precaution. This assessment is quickly revised when the situation in Italy changes dramatically: Over 50 new infections in just one night, several deaths within a few days. Health Minister Jens Spahn warns: Corona has arrived in Europe. Wuhan is in complete lock-down, the disease is gradually affecting the economic system as well.
“At the beginning, it looked as if only the economic situation was getting worse, especially for the automotive industry,” says the managing director of Nepata Vertrieb GmbH. BMW could no longer supply sunroofs because they were produced in corona-bagged Wuhan. Early on, however, Bernhard Schmidt’s co-workers also got to see how Corona can turn life upside down in a holistic way when, not much later, a package from their friends in China made its way to them.
March 2020: The lockdown is coming
More and more cases in Germany are becoming known. The federal government’s crisis management team bans the export of medical protective equipment. The federal government appeals to people to take the situation seriously. Public life is restricted, curfews are imposed, stores close. At the end of the month, Germany is also in lockdown.
“More or less unsolicited, our Chinese business partners then sent us face masks in March, saying that they were becoming absolutely necessary,” Bernhard says. Although the situation is serious, you still get irritated looks in the supermarket when you go shopping with a face mask. “After all, it’s in our genes to print things, and that’s what we ended up doing with the masks.” Employees of Nepata Vertrieb GmbH show off their freshly printed masks on social media. “And then the city of Pfaffenhofen took notice of us, because by then it was already clear from the political side that the masks would either become compulsory or people would be encouraged to wear them voluntarily.” Within a few days, the decision was made: Nepata Vertrieb GmbH enters the mask business. An odyssey follows. “And all of a sudden we were in there in a weird game.”
April 2020: We need masks
Easter under the sign of Corona. Over 100.000 people in Italy have been infected and over 12.000 have died. The German economy is at a standstill. People work from home, or not at all anymore. Schools and universities are closed. The press discusses the sense and nonsense of face masks. But the obligation to wear masks in public places will come.
“Pfaffenhofen was among the first to order masks from us,” Bernhard recalls. Suddenly the role of his company, the role of his employees changes. The head of human resources becomes the chief designer and creates a pattern in a few days. Designers and mechanical engineers negotiate with DHL. The Chinese factory that produces the masks actually makes sportswear. The content marketing employee prints masks. The Corona Pandemic becomes a strangely morbid game, its rules changing almost daily, the number of players becoming more and more confusing. “Here on site, everyone was immediately ready to do their part. Getting the masks to us in Wolnzach was the most difficult thing in the end, ” Bernhard sums up. At unproblematic points in the supply chain, things suddenly go wrong. Rumors are going around: Masks are stolen on the way to the airport from the factories. In the EU, complaints about counterfeit medical masks are coming in, which is why Chinese customs require certificates and purchase contracts. Everything is delayed.
The journey of the masks to Germany becomes a madness, as Bernhard puts it: “The first few thousand masks we still got normally via UPS and DHL, at some point it took longer and longer.” Strange offers land in the e-mail inbox of Nepata Vertrieb GmbH. “You want your delivery faster? No problem, they can have it in five days, but then it costs more and this offer has a validity of two hours.” A military maneuver is taking place at the intermediate airport in Azerbaijan, and the masks are threatening to get stuck in Baku. “We were then given another one-off chance to bypass this airport for a small extra charge. It was really like, ‘Now they have 2 hours there, then we can offer them an alternative flight.’ Otherwise, the goods are stuck in Baku.’ That was really just about total rip-off.”
And even when the masks land on German soil, the trembling continues. Freight brokers in Munich tell us that the masks are held by the Trade Supervisory Office in Munich, and that the certificates supplied with them are invalid. “Yet our masks were not medical masks at all, but simple community masks,” Bernhard explains somewhat incredulously. Little by little masks arrive in Wolnzach, but actually still too few. The first large shipment that Pfaffenhofen County plans to supply its citizens with will arrive on Friday, April 24 in the evening at 10 o’clock. On April 27, masks are mandatory in Bavaria and every citizen of the Pfaffenhofen district will receive a face mask from Nepata Vetrieb GmbH. The road there: a feat of strength.
May 2020: Life goes on, but only with mask
The mask becomes more important than ever. Slowly but surely, restaurateurs in Germany are allowed to reopen their stores under strict conditions. Shopping, going to the authorities, visiting the doctor – people disappear behind the face mask to protect themselves and others from the deadly virus that is spreading around the world with dramatic consequences.
The municipalities have been taken care of, and the pressure that had been on Neptata Vertrieb GmbH throughout April is easing somewhat. The company had to respond to the changes in the market and the needs of its partners within a month. “Our real business is, after all, that we print things. That’s the real story of our company. We manufacture machines for printing textiles. The fact that we sell blank masks was not really our intention,” says Bernhard. It was therefore unanimously agreed that no profit would be made from the plight of so many people, as employees at so many other players have experienced in recent months. The blank masks are now printed with slogans or logos in Wolnzach, but no profit is intended. “Our customers are people who make T-shirts and sportswear for sports clubs and festivals. They have nothing to do right now either. Sports are idle, there are no festivals, and of course they’re happy that the mask business is coming,” Bernhard explains.
However, the Hallertau-based company wants to make a further contribution by printing masks. “Maybe we can take some of the edge off the masks with a funny saying and make them more integrated for people in their everyday lives,” Bernhard explains. “And the profits from this go to social institutions such as the Pfaffenhofener Tafel in the form of donations of masks.” An almost unbelievable story about a face mask comes to an end, and proves: With a little flexibility and a lot of nerves, you can play this terrible game called Corona with fairness.