Mark Ashcroft on 162 Days of the Coronavirus Challenge

In mid-March, I exchanged a LinkedIn post with a good friend and former colleague, Ted Gioia. His advice was that I should write a leadership book once I had navigated through the Coronavirus crisis.

In many ways that felt like the start of the leadership challenge that I, like many other CEO’s faced.

As I spoke to a colleague, Andrew Emmott, I realised that my intimate contact had started on the 6th of December 2019. Looking back, I remember debating with Andrew when he should head from the UK to China to visit customers. The big decision based on dates for his stag do.

Talking with Andrew we were trying to arrange interviews for a new Business Development Director in Beijing, and we selected the 10th of December; at that point I would fly out for a full day of interviews plus a Quarterly Business Review with our China General Manager, Allen Xing

Fast forward to the 6th December when Andrew told me about his visit to Hubei, my immediate response was; where is that?

Here’s what he told me about his flying visit to Hubei;

Harkness have been developing a partnership for a High Gain Silver 3D screen with a premium format cinema brand.  Having gone through various stages of R&D and approvals a screen was installed in China for an on-site evaluation, with the partner company, at a Wanda Cinema in October 2019. 

For Harkness’ assessment it was necessary to see the screen in theatre, to check against specific criteria including; image uniformity, brightness and 3D appearance.  

On the 4th December 2019 Allen and I took an early morning, 1000km flight from Beijing Capital to Xiangyang, in the province of Hubei.  Following check-in at one of the very few internationally recognised brands in the city; the Crown Plaza, situated next door to the Wanda Plaza, we met the cinema manager and viewed our screen. 

The screen looked great.  At 20m wide, the first commercially installed screen of our next generation, high-gain technology, silver screen did not disappoint, the site manager extremely satisfied with Harkness’ addition to the site.

With only one direct flight per day from Beijing, Allen and I had the afternoon free to visit the city of Xiangyang.  Xiangyang is the second largest city in population to Wuhan, in the province of Hubei. 

Boasting one of the oldest still-intact city walls in China, the main street has a bustling market feel with modern shops lining both sides of the pedestrianised centre whilst maintaining the character and feel you would expect in a traditional Chinese city.  Held within the gate tower at one end of the street is the city museum, with collections from the Qin and Han dynasties.

A taxi took us to Xiangyang Tangcheng Film and Television Base, a filming location for Disney’s Mulan (2020).  At a cost of 1.6 billion yuan (230 million dollars) and after six years of construction, it replicates the living conditions of the great Tang Dynasty in China (618–907AD) including civilian streets and markets, lakes, pavilions, an imperial city and officials’ mansions. 

Outside of old town Xiangyang, in the taxi to and from the airport, the city has an extremely industrialised feel.  The main road lined with factories, storage facilities and car production plants.  This was not surprising as Xianyang is on the first international rail freight routes, supporting the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative for economic and transport development.

I was pleased with the news from Xiangyang and looked forward to congratulating the team in China upon my arrival in the country.

It was on the 10th December that I sat in the lounge at the Westin hotel, prepared to interview two people, Kevin and Jeff. My memory is often taken back to meeting Jeff.

He told me he had moved back home to Wuhan; both his parents had taken ill and he was at home looking after them. He hoped they were recovering from a respiratory pneumonia.

Before Covid-19 had caused Wuhan to be sealed off from the rest of the Hubei province on the 23rd January, many Xiangyang residents would have returned from there to be with family for the Lunar New Year festivals.

It is hard to imagine that what Andrew saw as an extremely inviting, friendly, bustling city only 300km from the epicentre of the world pandemic would have been unaffected by the virus. Andrew told me he saw a report on BBC news from a doctor who said she had chosen to remain in the city to help at the ‘fever clinic’. The hospital was better supplied with protective equipment than she expected through government efforts and private companies’ donations, a situation now replicated around the world.

Whilst much of the world is in lockdown, Andrew hopes to visit again soon.

On the 23rd January I sent a note to the manager of our Chinese factory, Yao Hui, relating to her my experiences with SARS in 2003. At the time I was EVP at Sola Inc, a NYSE company, with manufacturing in Guangzhou.

As SARS accelerated, the Chinese government made it clear to us that if any member of our staff contracted the disease our factory would be closed; such a result being unthinkable as the factory was a global supply hub. Our CEO and COO, Jeremy and Barry moved quickly. Building a contingency plan, putting in place on-premises medical teams to implement; hand hygiene, face masks and temperature checks.

My note to Yao asked her to instigate track and trace of our staff as they headed off for Chinese New Year, also stressing the importance of hand hygiene, deep cleans, masks and temperature checks. I repeated the message to our other factory managers in India, France, the UK and USA on 23rd February.

The safety of our staff being paramount the message was also relayed to all our offices.

As February ended my colleague Nicolas Chiovini found himself forced to work from home after his village in Northern Italy was found to be in the so-called red zone. The week before he had been in Nice, France with colleagues from the USA, the UK and France.

On Friday 13th March, I found myself spending the day in our Stevenage Technology Centre. The key focus was how to deploy our R&D and Technology teams against two critical areas for cinemas; the deployment of RGB lasers and how we can reduce screen installation costs.

On arriving home that Friday evening I was very ill, so I let Chrystal Shaikh our UK site GM know. We decided to inform Public Health England, closing the site and enacting a deep clean reopening after five days. That started a period of self-isolation and working from home. I have continued to walk for 45 minutes per day, only leaving my home twice, so far, for essential shopping.

During this period, I have focussed on the short-term actions to protect the Harkness business, its employees, its shareholders, its banks, its suppliers and customers, both old and new.

It has required us to close factories, but today four out of our five factories are open and supplying screens. It’s sad to see many of our competitors closed but being fully prepared to quote at ridiculously low prices.

We have responded to emergency requests from the Indian Government, local hospices and aged care givers, providing them with face visors and aprons. Developed and manufactured in less than seven days by our factory and R&D teams, that alone has filled me with pride and given our whole business inspiration.

So, having managed the emergency phase, we are now executing the reboot phase and planning for the recovery phase. Cinemas will re-open and moviegoers will want to get in front of the big screen again. At Harkness we are leading the way with technology and products to assist our cinema customers.

It’s allowed me to connect with organisations outside cinema, investigating ways to stay relevant. Catching up with my old boss at Party City, Jim, was great. We’ve even developed an interesting new idea and recall his ability to combine financial expertise with humour. During this emergency, such qualities are essential.

From my days in optics that reconnection has been very rewarding and there are some in cinema product ideas on their way. I am not sure whether this is the first chapter but it’s a new challenge that I am proud to have been able to contribute to thus far.

Harkness Screens

Harkness Screens™ is the world’s leading screen technology company, specialising in the design and manufacture of projection screens and supporting technologies for cinema and live events. From single-screen independent theatres to large multiplexes to large format immersive theatre experiences or live events, Harkness supplies thousands of screens every year helping provide outstanding presentation experiences to audiences around the world.

With global reach, Harkness is regarded as the world leader in cinema and has screens in more cinemas worldwide than any other manufacturer. With its industry leading 2D and 3D screen brands (Perlux HiWhite, Clarus XC and Spectral) along with an innovative range of presentation monitoring tools, digital surveying services and suite of cinema design and specification apps, Harkness continues to lead the way in screen technology for cinema.  

Founded in 1929, Harkness has manufacturing facilities in the USA, UK, France, India and China and combines unrivalled experience with the latest technology and production methods to provide innovative solutions to the company’s key markets.  For more information, visit the Harkness Screens web page at

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