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Brunello Cucinelli or the ethics of business
Rome (Adnkronos Multimedia) - "The expression 'ethics' is often misused. In any case, let's say that I try to manage my business while respecting the rules of ethics". It may seem strange but this was said by Brunello Cucinelli, the undisputed king of cashmere clothing, speaking about ethics and a different way of doing business. And perhaps an important key to his success has been his philosophical approach. Fifty years old, from Castel Rigone in Umbria, Cucinelli is the head of the enterprise bearing his name, with 300 employees and 800 outside workers, and with a 64 million euro turnover in 2003, two?thirds of it from abroad.
Mr Cucinelli, why did you decide to focus exclusively on the most precious of wools? How did you start out?
"Here in Umbria we live and breathe knitwear. During the Seventies, Luisa Spagnoli, who was from Perugia, had over 3 thousand people working for her from home. My mother also worked for Luisa Spagnoli. And sometimes I helped her. I am anything but a spoilt rich kid. Until I was sixteen I worked on the land. Then my father decided to take a job in a cement-making factory, and became an ordinary factory worker. He regretted this later. And we left Castel Rigone and went and lived on the outskirts of Perugia. To help support the family, my mother began working for Luisa Spagnoli."
And what about cashmere?
"I was just a good-for-nothing ex-rebel in the late '60s. Then I had an idea: if Benetton made millions of women's jumpers in ordinary coloured wool, I would do the same, but in cashmere. I was and still am convinced that the future will be based on quality, the highest quality. In 1979 I began working and started what has since become my company. For four years I worked on my own. I did everything from making the jumpers on the machine to packaging them through night. I sold practically everything I produced to Alto Adige. Why, you may ask? Because they were the only people who paid in cash within 30 days. Then I began to export to Germany. This was the real turning point, because back then banks would help finance foreign orders, and this made it easier to make a few small investments and take on my first employees".
And where do ethics come into it?
"They are vital! Towards the end of the Eighties, there was the eruption of Yuppyism and along with it the idea that profits are everything, that you need be successful on the Stock Exchange at any cost, even if that means treating your employees badly and not caring about quality and customers. I thought differently. Rather than looking to American super-managers, my models were Socrates, Seneca, Saint Benedict and Saint Francis. I wanted to maintain a relationship with people. If I make something, if I set up a business, I do it with the aim of improving the quality of life. Man doesn't own the Earth, he is only its caretaker. It doesn't make sense to chase after enormous short-term profits. Because everything passes, but the best things are those that one can savour over time."
What difference is there between working for Cucinelli or for one of the other large textile companies?
"Just to start with, everyone who works for me has a key to the premises."
What do you mean?
"I mean that they have the keys, they come and go when they want and no one has to clock in. And they work as if they were at home. In fact, they actually work inside houses, those of the medieval hamlet at Solomeo on the road leading to Lake Trasimeno, where our centre of operations is situated. It was a beautiful place that had been completely abandoned. In 1987, with my first earnings, I bought a small part: the remains of an old castle for very little money. I bought the last part a few years ago and naturally I had to pay much more. I restored everything, but didn't modernize it. I left everything as it was: the eleven houses divided into small apartments, the church, the castle. And this is where we work, surrounded by eight centuries of history".
To sum up, the 'Cucinelli model' is problem-free?
"There are problems, like in any business. But when this company dies, and it will certainly die because that's the way things go, there will be people who will say that it was the fault of the model I have followed. But that is not so. Companies don't die because their business model is flawed. No, they die when they stop wanting to improve, or stop being aware of the needs of their customers or don't sell their products. Running a business is actually very simple."