Supplier’s first move: Protect employees

By the time automakers halted production across the globe in response to COVID-19 — all but forcing their parts makers to do the same — one South Korean automotive supplier, StradVision Inc., had already recognized the danger and implemented a multistep plan to tackle the virus’ spread.

Before the coronavirus became a pandemic, the fledgling supplier of autonomous vehicle and advanced driver-assistance systems technology began responding to the crisis in January, taking steps to protect its staff at offices in South Korea, Germany, Japan and San Jose, Calif.

The company was determined to protect its early successes with customers, as well as its chief assets — the employees who were making it possible.

That response made the 6-year-old StradVision one of the early adopters of critical precautionary measures in the global supply chain, while others warily monitored the evolving situation from afar.

Lee: Transition wasn’t seamless

StradVision has not yet been impacted financially by the global health crisis, COO Sunny Lee told Automotive News last week from Seoul. But the company’s top-level management moved quickly over the course of a few weeks to withdraw from marketing events and customer meetings, require employees to work from home and train the staff on disease prevention.

“Working at home for a month is not an easy job for everybody,” Lee acknowledged. “It slows down development at first.” But the company prioritized employee safety anyway, she said.

The small company’s leadership shared the narrative of its actions with Automotive News in hopes of stimulating conversation with other automotive companies that might still be sorting out responses.

Disrupting its normal work routine was no light decision for StradVision. The company’s momentum has been building. It succeeded in winning a piece of five vehicle production projects in Europe and China, including work on a Level 4 autonomous bus project in Europe. Interest in its software is gaining awareness in industry circles.

There couldn’t be a worse time for it to risk withdrawing from center stage. But company management saw that potential danger was afoot.Taking action

As cases in China skyrocketed, it quickly became clear that much of what StradVision’s business model depends on — marketing at large industry gatherings to reach customers and investors, including Hyundai Motor Co., Hyundai Mobis and LG Electronics — was going to have to be halted, StradVision Marketing Manager John Oh said.

StradVision’s product isn’t a traditional automotive component. It is the software that allows automakers and other Tier 1 suppliers to make automatic emergency braking, lane assist and other AV technologies happen.

In January, several employees were planning to attend the critical Image Processing and Image Understanding conference, scheduled for Feb. 5-7 in Jeju, South Korea. At that event, embedded-perception software such as StradVision’s would be a large focus. Such computer vision conferences have been critical for StradVision in building new customer relationships.

But in the interest of safety, StradVision CEO Junhwan Kim overruled the company’s participation. Instead, Kim would be the only member of the company to attend, sparing all other staff members.

That was the first in a series of unusual decisions the CEO would have to make.

On his return to South Korea, Kim voluntarily quarantined himself from employees as a further precaution. Simultaneously, based on media reports out of China at that time indicating the coronavirus was spreading, Kim ordered additional employee safety measures be instituted.

StradVision first disinfected its headquarters in South Korea, and last month it distributed medical face masks for employees to wear in the office.

“We purchased masks in large quantities through a mask-manufacturing factory through personal connections and stocked them in the office to use them when people need to work in the office,” Oh said.

As the situation evolved in February, StradVision recommended that its 106 employees around the world begin working from home.

Half of StradVision’s work force decided to do so. For those who opted to continue going into the offices, the company required disease prevention training. That was particularly important in the company’s open- office environment in Seoul.No contact

The rapidly evolving situation also prompted StradVision to pull back from customer contact. In February, a product team was supposed to visit with a potential new customer in Japan to demonstrate its product. But before its engineers left from South Korea, news broke of an outbreak in Tokyo. The demonstration was postponed.

StradVision then escalated its safety plan and began preparing all employees globally to work remotely. It ordered staff to use the Zoom, Slack and Skype Internet communication platforms to allow employees to telecommunicate. By the first week of March, a mandatory work-from-home order was in place, Lee said.

But a fourth of its employees could not immediately telecommute. Those staffers were required to seek individual approval to go into the office.

By mid-March, 90 percent of the staff was working from home. StradVision management continued to worry about the 10 percent who were not yet doing so. For them, the company began subsidizing taxi service to the office rather than let employees risk the environment of mass transportation.

The clampdown on personal interaction also crimped another crucial activity for the supplier: employee recruitment.

StradVision’s business growth has increased the pressure to recruit more workers. But the new distancing effort not only meant postponing planned job interviews, it also meant delaying the start dates of five badly needed employees, Lee said.

Those new hires went briefly into the office one day in February for onboarding information. But the visit was restricted to only a few critical employees to limit time in the office. Even the new employees were tasked with projects they could undertake from their homes.

The company has resumed recruiting conversations, but those interviews now occur solely via Web conference call.

Lee says some initially thought StradVision was overreacting to the crisis. But the feeling internally was that the young company needed to move aggressively to protect its human resources and the business progress it had made.

“None of us had an objection that we should right away take very proactive actions,” Lee said.

Less than three weeks later, other global suppliers were reaching decisions similar to StradVision’s.

But most automotive suppliers were not as free to implement work-from-home policies and wind down operations, in large part because of the differences among their products. Other traditional global suppliers have slowly arrived at the need to shut down, including Delphi Technologies, Nexteer Automotive and Benteler. But as a new-age automotive software company, StradVision is far more nimble in where its work is performed.

And StradVision’s early transition to remote work was not seamless, Lee said. She said it took some time to get workers outside of South Korea full access to company servers. And cybersecurity concerns, she said, have required ample attention.

“It’s down to the decision between flexibility and risk, such as a cyberattack,” Lee said. “As a business leader, you need to understand: What is the decision point?”