ALL IN THE ITALIAN FAMILY

The old adage in Italy is that the first generation founds a company, the second generation grows it, and the third one runs it into the ground. But for every family business that fails, another one crops up to take its place. As a result, when compared to the rest of Europe and North America, Italy remains a land of small- and medium-sized firms.

It is estimated that 90 percent of all companies in Italy are family-held. The tradition goes back centuries. The oldest is thought to be Barolvier & Toso, a glassmaker founded in 1295. Another ancient example is Beretta, an arms-producing dynasty that has invoices going back to 1526, and whose guns were used in the American Revolution. Today, the phenomenon exists in virtually every sector. In fashion, the dynasties include Versace, Prada, and the Delvecchio family of Luxottica eyewear. In the food sector, there is the Barilla family. The Alessi and Merloni clans dominate design and household appliances. And the biggest names in Italian finance”Agnelli, Benetton, Pirelli, and De Benedetti”refer not only to an individual, but a family.

Alberto Falck, patriarch of the industrial group Falck SpA and chairman of the Italian Association of Family Businesses, says the reason such businesses do so well is that in times of crisis, they bare their claws and protect their pups. That is to say, families protect their livelihoods more vehemently than a CEO might protect a corporation. An outside manager can walk away from a crisis and take his lumps. On the other hand, protective patriarchs tend to shy away from rapid growth. Italian family companies are cautious, says Guido Corbetta, a professor of economics at Bocconi University who specializes in dynasties. American companies can grow much faster, but they take on more risk.

One high-profile case is Versace, which, in 2002, turned down investors looking to give the fashion house €200 million to buy back control of its brand from franchisees. We’re not looking for investors, Donatella Versace said in October of that year. For three years, investors have wanted to come into our company, and we always said no. The Milanese stock market has tried to woo large- and medium-sized family companies to list their shares, but it, too, found more reservation than enthusiasm. Fiat remains the only Italian company among the world’s largest multinationals, ranking 11th in total assets with €93.9 billion (US$122 billion). Italy has just 15 multinational corporations.

The best bet is to spend the first few months making personal contacts while earning some money on the side. Fresh off the plane, young travelers can usually expect to find immediate employment at a bar, guiding tours, or working as a nanny, while those with some experience might land a job doing public relations, marketing, or web design for an international company. The fashion industry is particularly fond of hiring internationals to work in showrooms, especially if they are young, attractive women: Remember that most Europeans do not see anything wrong with what North Americans might deem overt sexism and ageism. In a classified ad for a receptionist, for example, it is common practice in Italy to require that the applicant be a friendly girl between the ages of 23 and 27.

Photo Gallery ALL IN THE ITALIAN FAMILY

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