Good Works: Tencent and Universal Team Up on Charity PPE Distribution

N95 MASK
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

A protective surgical face mask

In early April, several days after Tencent Holdings closed its deal to buy a 10% stake in Universal Music Group along with a consortium of investors, Tencent chief strategy officer James Mitchell called UMG executive vp of communications Will Tanous with an idea.

Mitchell had spoken to Tanous a number of times over the course of the negotiations, but this was his first call since the deal closed, and it was about a very different topic. Mitchell asked if Universal could help Tencent – a Chinese technology conglomerate that owns major video games and social networking sites, as well as music streaming service – distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) it wanted to donate U.S. health care workers."

"China dealt with the coronavirus relatively early, and because of that and SARS, we're very focused on the value of protective equipment," Mitchell told Billboard. "And when we saw this spreading worldwide we wanted to help."

But that was easier said than done – especially because different countries have different standards for different kinds of equipment – and Tencent, although it's one of the most valuable technology companies in the world, isn't yet a household name in the U.S.

The previous week, Tencent had launched its Global Anti-Pandemic Fund to support the fight against the coronavirus, with a focus on sourcing and donating masks and isolation gowns, many of which are made in China. The company had committed to spend $100 million to donate PPE.

But as a Chinese company, "what we could do best is sourcing," says Mitchell, who is based in Hong Kong. "But we felt it would be best if we had people on the ground who could get it to hospitals."

By then, Tencent had already helped coordinate a delivery of 1.2 million masks to a Shenzhen airport, where they were picked up and flown back to the U.S. on the New England Patriots team plane, for distribution in Massachusetts and New York. Next, the company wanted to expand its donations outside the northeast. "We had been spending a lot of time with UMG in LA we had built up some rapport," Mitchell says, "so we asked them about being a partner in LA, and elsewhere."

Universal agreed. And during the last two weeks of April, Universal Music executives called hospitals in LA, South Florida and Nashville to arrange the donations. Ultimately, the project delivered 250,000 KN95 and surgical masks in Los Angeles, 200,000 in South Florida, and 75,000 in Nashville. "They did a lot of work very quickly," Mitchell says.

Tencent is also working with other companies on similar projects: It teamed up with Comcast Corporation to deliver 600,000 masks in Philadelphia, where the company is based, and with Universal Studios to deliver 600,000 masks in Orlando, Fla. (Currently, Universal Studios has no corporate relationship to Universal Music.) Tencent has also made other donations, in Detroit, and at the state level in New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana.

It's an unexpected and ambitious first project for two companies that could end up with an even closer connection: Tencent's deal with Universal allows it to buy another 10 percent of the company. "The fact that these two companies were able to cut through all of the inertia and accomplish this," Mitchell says, "is a good sign."

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