The pandemic turned both our personal and professional lives upside down. In all its subsidiaries, Fives established appropriate health measures and adapted working methods, giving top priority to protecting the health of employees, partners and customers. These measures were deployed smoothly, as digitalization of internal processes and teleworking had been anticipated a few years earlier. Throughout the world, Fives teams demonstrated unique commitment and solidarity.
The pandemic also disrupted our markets, and in 2020, the world suffered the worst recession in decades. The successive waves of the pandemic, the stop and go policies, and the lack of short-term visibility on the way out of the crisis, shook the confidence of the major industrial players - our clients - who postponed many of their investment decisions. With the shutdown of numerous factories and imposed travel restrictions, the service-based activities also suffered. Consequently, the Group received orders amounting to €1,612 million, down by 12% compared to 2019.
In this context, however, the Group had some notable successes (watch the video here). By relying on a long-standing decentralized organization, we succeeded in being agile and creative in order to seize the commercial opportunities that came along, pursued our transformation and innovation programs, our environmental and human resources initiatives.
We started 2020 out on solid ground, and this helped us to weather the storm by minimizing its consequences on our balance sheet as well as on our profitability.
The weakened commercial environment and turbulence, caused by the health crisis, critically affected our 2020 sales, which reached €1,610 million, down by nearly 20% compared to 2019. However, the Group's profitability endured, given the situation. The operating margin reached 5.1% of sales; just 1 point lower than in 2019, thanks to the efficient control of the margins in execution on existing contracts, and our ongoing efforts to reduce overheads, as well as the support measures put in place by respective governments.
Finally, the Group had almost €300 million in cash on the balance sheet as of December 31, 2020. This comfortable level of liquidity was achieved thanks to State guaranteed loans in France, Italy and the United States, providing us confidence in our ability to continue to deliver on our commitments and invest in preparing for the future.
At a time when vaccination campaigns are accelerating worldwide, we are beginning to see a glimpse of the end of the crisis, and our prospects are becoming clearer.
Fives succeeded, despite the pandemic, in securing order bookings totaling €1,372 million at end 2020; stable when compared to 2019 (at constant exchange rates) and with good margins, providing us with positive visibility for the coming months.
Group sales are expected to return to growth in 2021, driven by the Smart Automation Solutions backlog, stimulated in turn by the boom in e-commerce and distribution. Our High Precision Machines and Process Technologies activities, where we have further reduced the break-even points by working on overheads, will be positioned to bounce back as soon as their markets are better situated. The massive recovery plans put in place by our governments are also expected to result in a more marked recovery by mid-2021, and allow us to exceed our 2019 sales and profit levels by the end of 2022.
Taking a long-term perspective, the health crisis has accelerated some fundamental market trends that we had already anticipated in our strategic planning, offering growth potential. Digitalization – the fuel of all our technological solutions - is the key to the industry of the future. The fight against climate change, which is at the origin of all our R&D programs over the last ten years, is an increasingly important driver for our activities. Trade is becoming more regionalized. This main driver for our international development over the last two decades is more topical than ever, as part of a drive for national sovereignty over strategic sectors, and priority given to local employment and economic players.
In 2020, Fives adopted a new set of values which will lead us towards a virtuous, cutting-edge, mutually responsible and exciting industry. They allow us to strongly reiterate our commitment to demonstrating that “Industry can do it” and looking to the future with confidence.