One reason for this may be that most small businesses are family owned, and it is highly likely that a client entering a small business will be served by a family member. The reputation of the family is on the line each time a business transaction takes place, and Italians take this responsibility very seriously. Even if the family does hire non-family members as employees, they are likely long-time family friends or have been hired on the recommendation of family or close friends. Pride in the business and securing its success is therefore of paramount importance to all workers, and they usually treat their customers with the utmost courtesy.
|Giuseppe Benanti joked that he bought this|
wine glass because his doctor told him that
for health reasons, he should only drink
one glass of wine a day.
“The family firm has been the backbone of the Italian economy,” reads an article in The Economist. “Because managers and owners tend to be one and the same, the best Italian firms are hard-working and run for the long term.”
Businesses with fewer than twenty workers comprise roughly 60 percent of the work force in Italy, compared to 30 percent in Germany and 10 percent in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Worldwide, only 30 percent of family businesses transition to the second generation, but in Italy, the percentage is at least 50 percent.
I recently completed an eleven-day tour of Sicily, and in each city, our tour guides took us to small family restaurants, wineries and other attractions. We toured a candy factory that has been operated by the same family since 1880. Each time we left impressed not only with the level of customer service but with the pride that the families took in the processes they used in preparing their products. They stressed purity of raw materials, strict production protocols and the use of time-tested formulas. They talked about what they did as if they were talking about their children. While they were not opposed to experimentation and variations, they maintained their core products, which were essential to their success. Quality, they said, was at the heart of everything they made.
“The pride comes from close knit family bonds,” says Alfio di Mauro, tour guide with Rick Steves’ Europe. “You are proud to belong to the family. You are proud to do everything you can to maintain your family’s good reputation and traditions.”
One of the most extreme examples I saw of this pride and passion came when our tour group visited the the winery of Azienda Benanti, on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. I listened to Salvino Benanti explain with great pride the care that his family took with the selection and testing of just the right varieties of grapes suited to the various soils and climates of Etna. Just a hundred meter difference in elevation can make a difference in what type of grape is used or in how many years the wine should be aged. Later, his brother Antonio spoke to us, devoting five minutes just on the process they use to select a provider for their corks. He discussed the varying levels of cork quality and the pros and cons of synthetic materials, concluding that his family has finally found a provider that he thinks can supply the business with the consistency of cork quality that its wine merit.
“Italy is all about family, and making quality products is crucial to keeping the family’s reputation high,” Salvino said. “It’s a matter of pride, and in some cases, excellence is pursued regardless of the lack of any immediate financial return.”
Italians are recognized for maintaining strong family ties, and running a business together can maintain and strengthen those bonds. In addition, the intimacy of a smaller company allows individuals to be more automous and creative, to be more involved in the decision-making.
Antonio and Salvino were managing a pharmaceutical company in Milan when they decided to quit and join their father Giuseppe’s small but growing wine-making firm. They are combining their business knowledge with their father’s knowledge and experience—aided by the unique soil “minerality” and climactic qualities of the Etna region. Their wine has recently been recognized as among the best worldwide, winning prestigious awards in national and international competitions.
Their wine is made on one of the farms that had been owned by Giuseppe’s grandfather, who began making wine in the 1800s. Giuseppe said that in 1988, he revived the family’s old passion, but not before investigating “particular clones of indigenous vines and new enological techniques to reproduce ancient fragrances using the most modern practices of vinification, in a perfect union of history and reality.”
Although the Benanti family business is still relatively new, its evolution is following a familiar path of many of the long-established Italian businesses, most of which began as small one-person operations tied to a special skill or passion.
“Our winery started off as a mere hobby—a very costly one—for my father,” Salvino said. “His intent was to make excellent wine, and it has taken him more than a decade to perfect his techniques and put Etna on the global wine map. Now that the world knows about us, it is very important for us to maintain—and possibly improve—our standards.”
“I created a new farm with new technologies, new plantings, new processing methodologies,” Giuseppe said. “All new yet at the same time old, because the philosophy guiding my decisions was and still is my grandfather’s. He used to tell me, ‘Keep an eye on the grapes!’ I have also managed to transmit this passion to my sons, who follow this family tradition with the same inspiring principles and the same determination.”