Women business leaders / Italy
Decisive, outspoken, innovative, inspiring, bold; Monocle speaks to the steel magnate, hotelier, vintner, electricity group head and fashion distributor setting their own agenda.
Vice chairman and CEO, Marcegaglia
The steel boss is putting her significant manufacturing and political influence into making Italy work again.The words “Made in Italy” tend to conjure images of tailored suits and well-crafted leather goods rather than metal components and machine tools. This shouldn’t be the case as Italian exports are worth close to €400bn each year and the biggest share comes from heavy-duty manufacturing not haute couture. Just ask Emma Marcegaglia, who runs her family’s steel multinational.
“We make everything from tiny steel tubes that are millimetres thick for refrigerators to big pipes for oil,” she says. Like many prominent firms in the Bel Paese, her company is family owned. Started by her father in 1959 near Mantua and specialising in irrigation pipes, the Marcegaglia empire today has annual revenues of more than €4bn, 7,500 employees and plants from Italy to China. Co-ceo together with her brother, Marcegaglia is one of the country’s most high-profile businesswomen. In 2012, she finished a four-year term as head of Confindustria, Italy’s employers’ association, where she represented the voice of a frustrated business community faced with an immobile government caught up in the scandals of then leader Silvio Berlusconi. Then came Mario Monti’s tenure as head of a cabinet of technocrats tasked with kick-starting growth.
With Monti, Marcegaglia says opportunities were again missed to overhaul Italy’s rigid labour market. “Reforms haven’t gone far enough. Salaries are low and the cost to employers high. Older workers are protected but lots of young people are on temporary contracts without benefits.” Comfortable in her role as champion of free enterprise, Marcegaglia now lobbies from her post as president of Business Europe, a group of national employer federations from 35 countries on the Continent that represents millions of firms.
Juggling two jobs keeps Marcegaglia busy. She’s just returned from talks in Athens with the Greek prime minister and is dashing off the next day to Davos to meet David Cameron and foreign executives before heading to a Brussels conference attended by EU brass.
Faced with crippling unemployment across Europe, she’s backing a proposal to get manufacturing jobs back from overseas. “Our goal is re-shoring. By 2020, we want 20 per cent of work in the EU to come from making things.” While Germany is already at that target, others are lagging behind. Italy, which has the continent’s third biggest manufacturing base, is at 15 per cent but bureaucracy and the cost of energy is holding it back. “We’ve seen energy bills rise in the last eight years by more than a third in Europe while the US has managed to bring it down,” she says.
While many envy Germany’s economic prowess, Marcegaglia says Italian firms can stand their ground. “We aren’t inferior when it comes to making things. The difference is often in scale. We have many small firms that export and are leaders in a niche.”
She points out that what hampers the creation of big industrial groups in Italy is the very thing that gave rise to many of them: family management. “Many prefer to be 100 per cent family owned instead of 30 per cent of a larger entity. It’s cultural. On the one hand, family-run means swift decision-making but it can sometimes limit growth.”
Monocle comment: Innovation is not only about software and services and Marcegaglia is proof we still need businesses making the nuts and bolts. Manufacturing puts pride back into a nation. Italy needs more outspoken entrepreneurs like her to rally the troops.
Co-owner, Gaja Wines
Gaia Gaja is not just content to preserve the heritage of her family’s wine estate, she is set on driving quality and breaking into emerging markets.
Gaia Gaja meets monocle in thick mist on an early spring morning in the village of Barbaresco. “This is a typical day in this area of Piedmont,” says the blue-eyed 35-year-old with a smile, “There’s a reason why our most famous grape Nebbiolo comes from the word nebbia [fog].”
This peculiar climate is one of the reasons Gaja’s family wine estate has flourished – the late-ripening Nebbiolo produces a subtle, unique wine with intense tannins and the earthy truffle and rose petal flavours of the foggy Langhe region. The other appears to be sheer ingenuity: the now prized-wine started from the family tavern and, over the years – as Italian land rights liberalised – the Gajas bought up the surrounding vineyards, digging into the hills to create cellars. “They had nowhere else to go,” says Gaja in the small courtyard, which is still the heart of the production. “They were like moles.” More recently the family purchased a nearby castle and tunnelled under the road to connect the properties.
With her sister Rosanna, Gaja is the fifth generation to take on the management of the estate. Now 74, her father Angelo – a man revered as a pioneer in wine circles – entrusted them with ownership and management of the brand four years ago. “My father is still very active,” she says. “But he is not possessive. He knows very well that fault lines come with generational change.”
Gaja has clearly inherited her father’s nose and love for the land but for the last few years she has been in charge of commerce, travelling intensively one week out of every month. While her father is credited with taking the family vintage to high-end oenophiles in the US, she has her sights set on emerging markets. “[In 2014] I would like to focus on Eastern Europe,” she says, “Poland and Ukraine grew well last year. Romania is a promising market. Then, there’s Africa – I know many prestige wines are selling well in Congo, in the Côte d’Ivoire.” Gaja visits China twice a year to host tastings and attends a select clutch of wine fairs to present the vintage. “On my next trip [to China] I plan to present three wines with and without different Chinese foods,” she says. “It’s about proving the versatility of Nebbiolo.”
Back at home the two sisters have set about making the family’s 100 hectare operation completely self sufficient – Gaja has introduced an organic worm compost system and reorganised the workforce so that harvest can be more agile and responsive to the changing weather. “The project for 2014 is to have our own nursery,” she says. “It’s about making as little intervention as possible.”
In many ways Gaja’s task is preserving her family legacy. While expansion is clearly part of the family philosophy she believes her task is to focus on quality and commerce. It was only in the mid-1990s that her father acquired two new estates in Tuscany, one in the rolling hills of Montalcino and the other on the coast near Bolgheri. She admits the current economic climate has meant that, “sadly”, there are many vineyards up for sale in Italy but still thinks now is the time to consolidate. “The goal is to become a star of Montalcino,” she reflects. “When all three vineyards are recognised as leaders in their region – then we look again. It will always be Italy.”
Monocle comment: Gaja’s degree in economics and stint working in San Francisco have given her shrewd business judgment – she’s keenly aware that commerce and branding are key to success. However, it’s the genuine passion for the family brand and the love of the vines that make her an inspiring global figure in the industry.
Francesca Bortolotto Possati
President and ceo of Bauer Group
Francesca Bortolotto Possati’s unswerving passion for Venice will see her stop at nothing to promote it as a living city. “Most of the hotels in Italy are owned by huge chains and it’s a failing of our political system that this has been allowed to happen,” states the heiress hotelier Francesca Bortolotto Possati in immaculate American-accented English as she sits in the lounge of her opulent 18th century palazzo apartment on the bank of the Grand Canal. “It’s also short-sighted to allow day trippers to bombard Venice in this way. It’s scary. They don’t understand or support the true culture of the city.”
Bortolotto is chair and ceo of the Venetian hotel group Bauer and a passionate defender of her city’s fragile heritage. Venice – and its hospitality industry – has changed immeasurably in her lifetime. And indeed, since her grandfather Arnaldo Bennati, a Ligurian shipbuilder, purchased Bauer’s first Gothic-Byzantine property on the Grand Canal in 1930. Back then the dynamic businessman installed a daringly modernist façade “a talking point in conservative Venice, even today”, says Bortolotto.
That she would take the helm of the estate she inherited from him in the late 1990s – along with a vineyard and a dairy farm – was by no means a given. Bortolotto had been living in the US for 10 years where she worked as an interior design consultant and ran a business trading traditional Venetian headboards.
But it was there she learnt to “think big and break with tradition”, she says. She returned to take the helm of the family enterprise and spent €180m renovating the original Bauer hotel. Like her grandfather, her plans were radical. She took the decision to split the historic property in half to create two distinct hotels; Il Palazzo was furnished with traditional Venetian grandeur and L’Hotel Bauer a more contemporary sense.
She also expanded the Bauer empire to include three more properties. Recently she launched the city’s largest spa and created private residences to promote longer stays in Villa F, a bid to change the culture of tourism in the city and to promote long-stay bookings. “I thought that the serviced apartment model was the way to go and these have proven me right.”
In order to lure the right kind of visitor (one willing to invest time in the city), Bortolotto has begun a programme of lectures designed to position Bauer as a hub for the arts. “[We] invite professors from top universities to speak about fashion, art and design,” she says. “We believe that this will promote a thriving culture in Venice. Which is what really matters. It’s a living city. It’s not a museum.”
Bortolotto is a hotelier deeply invested in the civic life of Venice. Despite her success, it’s taken a while for the city’s “establishment” to trust her. “Oh, it took at least 10 years for them to answer my calls,” she says ruefully, “but now they keep calling me.” And is she tempted by a career in politics to make even more of an impact? She pauses, poised as ever. “Italy’s establishment is governed by men but we need more positive female role models and I’m determined to share what I’ve learnt about business. We shall see.”
Monocle comment: Bortolotto’s success has been a result of bold decisions and investment. Most of all, she knows that true value lies not just in the interiors or service but in the spirit of the city itself. More hoteliers should become outspoken civic activists.
Head of business development, Enel
Francesca Gostinelli is well placed to spark a wider debate about childcare for parents in Italy. “Italians are known for their creativity and that’s a fundamental quality for success,” says Francesca Gostinelli, the 40-year-old head of business development at electricity giant Enel. “Innovation is one of the most important words at Enel and that means a new way of thinking.”
Enel is one of Italy’s success stories. In less than 10 years, the electric utility company has transformed into a major multinational, serving more than 60 million customers in 40 countries. Geothermal electricity was born in Tuscany – in and around the hot springs of Grosseto – and today Enel is the bearer of Italy’s legacy with trailblazing green-power projects, from photovoltaic plants in Romania to wind farms in Chile.
Now in her eighth year at Enel, Gostinelli serves on the board of directors and has been an active part of its growth. “Electricity used to be viewed as an old-fashioned industry but now that is changing with new technologies and a more competitive market,” she says, emphasising that communication has been key to Enel’s expansion. “Our biggest challenge was overcoming differences with people from other regions and learning how to listen. This means respect for everyone.”
Gostinelli is a leader with a daunting list of accolades. She has studied at nyu, Harvard and the University of Florence and has masters in engineering and economics. She speaks five languages, and is working on her sixth – Russian.
As a working wife and mother of two young children Gostinelli would like to see changes in the perception and provision for working women in Italy. “We have to start in primary school so young girls get an idea of what all of their options are,” she says. “Services need to improve for all working parents.”
As for her own work-life balance, Gostinelli says she has made her own rules, “I hate any dead time on my agenda because that could be time at home with my family. My bosses know that I like to be home for dinner by 19:30. After that they can reach me on the phone.”
Monocle comment: Gostinelli’s intuitive business approach is informed by her training as an engineer. She is a key architect in the company’s push towards clean power and the brains behind some of its most successful takeovers.
Owner and president of WP Lavori in Corso
Cristina Calori has spun her fashion distribution company to new success beyond European borders. Cristina Calori set out in business with her father in 1982 and puts plenty of stock in lessons learned at his side. “He taught me how to find the right people to work with and which types of relationship to establish with partners,” says Calori, who was just 23 when the pair founded the Italian fashion distribution firm WP Lavori in Corso. Back then Cristina’s role was to scout and woo brands the company could import to the Italian market.
Cristina took the helm in 2000 and now the company of 120 manages the design and production of big-name brands including Baracuta and Woolrich, as well as distribution agreements with BD Baggies, Barbour and Avon Celli.
With 15 retail spaces in Italy the company is looking beyond Europe’s blighted retail. Its first international venture, a store in Seoul, opened last November and this March another will open in Brooklyn. Having turned over €118m last year, Calori is anticipating 4 per cent growth in the year to come. “The Italian market is still low but I think we’re at the end of that chapter,” says Calori.
Monocle comment: Calori’s decision to expand in both the US and Asian markets is the reason for the company’s bright forecast for the year ahead.