Good with figuras but not so good with figures? Basta already! A new generation of Italian entrepreneurs is defying the clichés — and the bureaucracy, says Mark Nayler
THE PROBLEM WITH having one renaissance (the Renaissance, in fact) is that people are always hoping for another. Nerio Alessandri, founder and president of designer fitness equipment company Technogym and one of Italy’s most successful entrepreneurs, has succumbed to that hope. He shares a vision with many Italian business leaders and academics that exporting Italy’s way of life is the key to its revival and that the country’s entrepreneurs — innovators whose passion for design has made Italy synonymous with beautiful products — are going to be crucial.
Alessandri’s first professional concern, in his garage in 1983, was squatting (the exercise, not the occupation). The original piece of Technogym equipment enabled people to squat with maximum effect and without harm. Now, with its flaking red paint in TG’s Cesena museum, displayed next to their most recent machines, it looks more like an instrument of torture.
TG is hoping people like me, who have assiduously avoided gyms throughout their adult life, will be converted to the cause of beauty in exercise and exercise for beauty. Pure exercise, like walking on the spot on a revolving rubber track while staring into space and trying to ignore the mounting discomfort, is not an option. So in Alessandri’s ultra-refined home gym, situated in the basement of the elegant, immaculately renovated 16th-century palazzo, in which he lives with his family, I was introduced to my first ever treadmill.
It was no ordinary treadmill, I was told. On a built-in electronic screen in front of me was presented a range of ways in which I could forget that I was actually on a treadmill. I started off at a gentle walking pace and my personal trainer — clearly well-drilled in the TG patter and looking like he’d never had a drink or cigarette in his life — suggested I play one of the games on offer. Seconds later, engrossed in matching up things with other things, I had more or less forgotten that I was doing the equivalent of hiking up a fairly steep hill.
The machine looked pretty sleek too — nothing like the original red beast in the museum — and put paid to the idea that gym equipment must be ugly and functional and locked in a garage. Understanding the importance of aesthetics to TG and Alessandri is to understand his vision for the company and what Italy has to offer the rest of the world.
‘When I started 27 years ago,’ says Alessandri in his measured English, ‘I started off [thinking about] design.’ At this point in our conversation, Alessandri switches to rapid Italian, to get his point across with accuracy and passion: ‘For me, the product is a piece of art. When I create something like the Kinesis, it is a piece of art.’
The Kinesis is another recent TG innovation: a large, minimalist-looking piece which enables the user to stretch in dozens of different ways by pulling on cables. A gold version in one of the palazzo’s opulent guest bedrooms looked like an extravagant towel-rack. Why are design and aesthetics so important? Alessandri looks nonplussed for a second, as if the answer were obvious, before replying: ‘Because the artistic approach is part of [Italians’] DNA.’
When Alessandri talks of bringing about Italy’s renaissance by ‘leveraging the country’s asset,’ he means making it easier for the country’s thousands of young entrepreneurs to launch products and brands that embody the Italian obsession with design rather than the American obsession with cash. ‘The dream [of the American entrepreneur] is to sell the company,’ he says, but ‘the dream of the Italian entrepreneur is to innovate and to evolve his company.’ Doesn’t Italians’ lack of regard for the hard figures mean their businesses — and therefore the economy — suffer? Alessandri laughs: ‘Italian entrepreneurs are the worst in finance! And this has been a great advantage for the Italian economy.’
Alessandri’s paradox highlights Italy’s tumultuous economic situation, a major industrial power buffeted on eurozone turmoil. There is a lot to be done before the entrepreneurs can start leveraging Italy to prosperity. According to Marco Simoni, lecturer in European Political Economy at the London School of Economics, ‘Right now Italy is more of a museum than a place for new art and views, but what we can do is export the quality of life that is here.’ The International Monetary Fund have set Italy the exacting targets of reducing the debt to below 3 per cent of GDP by 2012 and to 0 per cent by 2014. To use one of TG’s slogans, the country’s entrepreneurs need to get moving.
EXPORTING ITALIANS’ QUALITY of life is something Technogym is now focusing on. It has packaged and branded it as ‘Wellness’, a holistic attitude to life in which working out plays a part, but whose essence is balance: balance between work and family life, between eating healthily and for enjoyment, between drinking just enough and to excess. The company’s increasing focus on lifestyle rather than equipment, says Alessandri, was instrumental in being chosen for the London 2012 Olympics, with its emphasis on a legacy that will improve lives in the capital.
Over an aperitivo on the palazzo’s first-floor terrace, TG’s international media relations manager, Enrico Manaresi, summarised the company’s take on living well: ‘If you are an athlete with a fantastic body, but you have no friends, no culture or ideas, then you won’t be a balanced person, you won’t be a happy person. If you win a Nobel Prize but you have a terrible body and are fat, you won’t be a happy person.’
Though I saw no cultured athletes or toned Nobel Prize winners wandering around its grounds, balance pervades all aspects of Alessandri’s home. The palazzo, within the walls of which you feel as if you’ve been swallowed up by a rarefied and health-obsessed cult, strikes a fascinating middle-ground between the classical (original stone staircases slope off slightly to the right) and modern (paintings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapped buildings). But wandering out of the palazzo’s meticulously maintained luxury into the narrow, café-packed streets of Cesena, you realise Alessandri didn’t really ‘devise’ Wellness, as he claims in his 2001 book on the subject. He tapped into the Italian way of life, at the heart of which are balance and refinement, and wrapped it in corporate packaging.
Alessandri’s palazzo in Cesena,
Corporate packaging or not, Italy’s spirit of design is precisely what Italian entrepreneurs — the country’s ‘number one asset,’ as Simoni says — need to be selling to revive the economy. They’re up against it, though: in a recent table from the World Bank, Italy was placed 80th in the world as a country in which to do business, dropping four places from 2010. Alessandri says the problems currently hindering entrepreneurs are the same as when he started in the early Eighties, when Italy was booming: ‘The problems with starting up an enterprise don’t depend on the economic condition, on whether there is a crisis or there is not a crisis. It depends on systems and infrastructure.’
BARRIERS TO SUCCESS don’t stop with the relaxed attitudes of planning authorities. Getting funding for start-ups is tricky as the banks only lend you money when you already have it — and then there are the miles of red tape. According to the World Bank, Italian business owners spend an average of eleven days a year filing their tax returns.
Sharing that obsession to push through the red tape and leverage Italy’s assets to the rest of the world is an advocacy group (they wanted to shed the fusty connotations of ‘think tank’) with which Simoni and other academics have been recently involved. Italia Futura was formed in 2009 by Fiat and Ferrari president Luca Corda di Montezemolo to push ideas for social and economic reform into the public domain.
Italia Futura’s director, Andrea Romano, reckons exporting the ‘Made in Italy’ brand is the key, but that there is work to do first: ‘Italy is trapped in a situation where our confidence in our potential is very low, so we do not believe in what we could do. I believe that the reason for this lack of self confidence is not for any anthropological reason or any condemnation from our history — it’s politics.’
Berlusconi had to be mentioned sooner or later. Romano doesn’t believe that his election was thanks to a media campaign without substance: ‘I always believed that the Berlusconi political phenomenon was a real phenomenon rooted in the beliefs of many millions of Italians. But it was a delusion. He never delivered — that was his biggest crash. Of course, after that there were the bunga-bunga incidents, but his lack of success came from politics.’
The changes that Romano and IF believe are necessary for Italy and its entrepreneurs to regain self-confidence depend on emergency legislation being passed through Italy’s parliament: first, abolition of the ‘evil’ electoral law to rid parliament of the ‘skeletons of old parties’; second, tax breaks for start-up enterprises; and third, a big investment in education, particularly the technical colleges at which future entrepreneurs learn their crafts and which are largely abandoned by the state at present.
They need this support, says Romano, given how crucial small enterprises will be to boosting the economy: ‘The role of entrepreneurs is fundamental, because they are the real owners of the “Made in Italy” know-how.’
This is fighting talk, and exactly what Italy needs — but how will Italia Futura implement its ideas for reform? It is working increasingly with MPs on a day-to-day basis, its aggressive advocacy is similar to the way in which political parties operate rather than think-tanks and, yes, Montezemolo might well go into politics.
What is interesting, says Romano, is that all that speculation is happening in the first place: ‘In a normal country there would be no discussion about an entrepreneur like Montezemolo becoming a politician — that would be a very odd discussion. But in Italy, where there is no evident leadership coming from any party, it’s natural that the media and citizens just look around and think, “Who could be the next leader?”’
Italian business leaders, academics and entrepreneurs are now looking forward rather than dwelling on the present — exactly the advice Alessandri says he would give to anyone trying to set up their own business in Italy. But to make it in Italy, says Alessandri, you also need ‘a lot of passion, you need to be really obsessed. It’s sort of romantic.’
Photography of treadmill and palazzo courtesy of Technogym