The entrepreneurial adventure begins
I am Giuseppe Aquila, CEO of Elmo & Montegrappa, historic Italian company producing luxury writing instruments.
Montegrappa was born in Bassano del Grappa in 1912 and is the first fountain pen factory in Italy, one of the oldest in the world. It is certainly the most prestigious today. My family’s adventure as part of Montegrappa began in 1938, when my grandfather Leopoldo Tullio Aquila met Alessandro Marzotto who was one of the historical founders of the Montegrappa company and asked him to produce a collection of fountain pens on his behalf.
Let’s get back to the beginning of the company: Alessandro Marzotto a few years earlier, so we talk about the beginning of the century, he meets Edwige Hoffman, an Austrian who launched in Austria, which at the time was only a few kilometers at the border level distant from Bassano, a production of gold nibs for fountain pens. In Italy there was still no company that produced pens and then together they founded the first fountain pen company in Italy. In 1938 my grandfather contacted Alessandro Marzotto and asked him to produce a line, a collection with his own name. His request is welcomed kindly and from there, in short, he starts a collaboration that will continue until the ‘70s, when my father will become, let’s say, the primary actor of our family business, therefore, in the world of pens and until then at the end of the ‘70s beginning of the ‘80s, when my father decided to acquire Montegrappa, because the Marzottos no longer had heirs who could continue this activity directly.
I obviously arrive later, for reasons of age, and exactly in ’92 I move to Bassano del Grappa with my family and I cover a role that was initially that of the development of foreign markets. From there, to meet the demands of foreign markets, the company’s range of products changes significantly, the decision is made to turn to the luxury market, the word luxury at the time was only beginning to be used, not there were luxury pens and at the time we invented the concept of limited editions, therefore productions with well-established editions aimed at a collector’s market. Therefore, that represents a very important turning point in the history of the company, which therefore completely changes its skin a little and is aimed at the luxury market.
From there to today there have been important events in the history of our company, you can see a few photos of more or less famous people behind me. Over the centuries the company has developed products, has had the good fortune of being able to develop exclusive collections or exclusive pens for very important characters, so government men, politicians, popes, actors, actresses, athletes, musicians, so we can count in our “carnet of celebrity” hundreds and hundreds of characters. I like to mention one, also because it is linked to the history of Bassano, especially in the period of the First World War which is Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway who just a few steps from here, from our headquarters, in the villa Ca ‘Erizzo, in particular in 1918 was a volunteer driver from the American Red Cross, who had an office right here in the villa Ca ‘Erizzo. Thus, it is said that Ernest Hemingway was one of the first famous users of our pens. The pen was at the time an equivalent instrument, comparable to what a mobile phone is, therefore a mobile phone of today because it was a means of communication. Today the role of the pen has also changed, it is used for important signatures, but it is also a status symbol, a luxury accessory, but at the time it was exclusively a communication object. This has also been experienced over more than a hundred years of history. Montegrappa, as I said before, was founded in 1912, we have 107 years of history.
The money to start
The company was taken over by my family at the end of the 1970s, early 1980s, with funds and resources of its own, therefore of the family. Until the early 1990s the company was run by an uncle of mine, it was a brother-in-law of my father, but in reality it was with my arrival at the company, then in 1992 that the company developed towards the foreign markets and we also started with the project of limited editions, so we turned to the luxury market.
Obviously at the time other investments were necessary, even in that case the company, the family, let’s say independently, provided to finance the company. In the company history there is also in 2000 a very important event that is the sale of the company, by my family to a multinational company that was the Richemont group, at the time it was called Vendome. Richemont still today owns brands such as Cartier and Montblanc in the pen business, IWC, Panerai, in short, will have about thirty luxury brands. At the time he had recently taken over the Panerai brand in watches and therefore wanted to add to his portfolio some Italian brands.
So my family decided in 2000 to sell the company, completely then in full, after five years of courtship by the Richemont group and we dedicated ourselves, to the period in which the company was owned by Richemont, in other activities anyway family’s. I personally have spent a few years with the Richemont group, to make the transition, let’s say, of delivering my knowledge to the group.
Then, nine years later, we were offered the opportunity to reacquire the company. 2007-2008 were very difficult years in the world of luxury, for the world of luxury, so the Richemont group had also suffered from a period of crisis and had therefore decided to dispose of some of its brands, including Montegrappa. We, in short, were fortunate enough to have maintained a relationship of great friendship and esteem with the owners of the group, so they turned to us as potential buyers. So we welcomed this opportunity with great enthusiasm and in fact in June 2009 my family reacquired the brand. All this to tell you that in 2009 the scenario was different, reacquiring the company was not exactly “a child’s play”, there was involved important figures and at the time it was just my father and I who decided to reacquire the company, therefore, my brothers and my mother, who were initially involved in the previous activity, did not want to take part in this new adventure.
So, we were basically 2 out of the 5 partners wanting to acquire the company in its entirety, so we didn’t have all the capital to do it, so we also used other external investors. We thought, however, at the time, why turn to a purely financial investor, let’s try to involve someone who can help us instead also from a marketing and commercial point of view. So we had important relationships with famous people, who in any case over the years had also been collectors of our products and with whom we had developed, a true friendship had developed, and so we contacted two of the closest ones to our world: one was Sylvester Stallone and the other was Jean Alesi, an actor, Hollywood movie star, the other a Formula 1 driver, in short of Ferrari and we proposed to them the opportunity to acquire minority shares, therefore to bring capital and to contribute in some way to the future development of the brand.
With Stallone, therefore beyond the capital, we asked him to become the “Brand Ambassador” of the company and even proposed to him to develop the design of a collection of products, a limited series called “Chaos”, which he designed and had a huge success then in the market.
With Jean Alesi, on the other hand, it was a more physical presence, in the sense that while Stallone worked a little behind the scenes, Jean Alesi was personally present at a whole series of events or activities. Obviously it has also facilitated relations with other characters in the context of Formula 1, therefore introduced to customers, contacts that later proved to be useful also at a communication level.
A negative and a positive event
I find it hard to find negative events, because in any case it was a very exciting adventure, especially in the historical period linked to the advent of our family in the company.
I certainly remember one important one, it was probably in 1981. We use a material called celluloid for the processing of some of our pens. Celluloid is a resin that comes from cotton fiber, which has many, very beautiful properties in terms of aesthetics, even in the very strength of the material, but two small problems related to processing. It is a highly flammable and explosive material.
Therefore, in 1981 I remember it was also a period of summer holidays, a short circuit in the environment where celluloid was stored, even dried, so there was an explosion of ovens in which celluloid was stored which also caused a fire, in short, quite important, which destroyed part of the productive laboratory. So, undoubtedly, this was a negative event, which also had repercussions, because in any case the celluloid requires very, very long times for the processing, for the production, we speak from 2 to 3 years also of drying, therefore in fact it created problems precisely in reconstituting the stock of the material, for at least another two years.
In those years we focused more and more on the processing then of the precious, then of silver, of gold which then also marked the way, let’s say, then the path of Montegrappa in the field of luxury. So, a negative event opened our eyes, gave us opportunities to invest more and more instead in the material, precious metals. So, this certainly I remember partially as a negative episode.
There have been many positive episodes, still referring to the photos of some characters, in 2000, in January 2000, a pen of ours which was the “dragone”, a limited edition of 1995 was used by Boris Yeltsin to broadcast, just as a testimonial, to transfer his power to Vladimir Putin. Then, in front of the cameras of the whole world, he said to Putin with a “dragone pen” in his hands: “With this pen, I give you Russia in your hands”.
So, this was a fortuitous event, not facilitated by us, therefore completely spontaneous, which, in short, made Montegrappa the most prestigious brand in Russia and therefore opened a market for us that was primary to us until a few years ago, until 5-6 years ago, when in short Russia then had some economic and financial problems, but it was a market that was always among the first, among the first three. So definitely an episode that I remember a lot, as very positive.
Doing business in Italy
Surely, doing business in Italy is not easy, it is not easy. However, we also had other experiences in other countries where it is possible to work in a much, much simpler way, where there is not much bureaucracy. But it must be said that, on the other hand, in Italy, especially in Veneto, because even as a family we have had other entrepreneurial experiences in other regions of Italy, but in Veneto there is availability, so, of artisans and above all with unique skills and abilities.
Why do you do business in Italy? Because in Italy there is still a “know how”, in my opinion, superior to any other country in the world, especially in the area of creativity. It is no coincidence that the made in Italy, in short, has so much success in the world, this is born precisely from a capacity that I consider at the level of DNA, genetic in Italians and that allows to produce unique objects in the world.
The key traits of an entrepreneur
If I think of a fundamental characteristic for an entrepreneur beyond his knowledge, which is fundamental, then education, studies, interests, culture, but a minimum, a bit of madness in the sense of the desire to take risks. This is fundamental, because any type of business involves risks, so not all donuts are born with holes, so within the entrepreneur’s career there will be successes, then there will also be many failures.
So, probably what is needed, a bit of madness, calculated risk and great determination and willpower, these in my opinion are the fundamental ingredients.
The future for the new generations
I am the father of two children, a son who is still studying, then in high school, he will still have a few years before entering the world of work, but a daughter who is 26 years old and collaborates with Montegrappa. Among other things, she studied styling in Milan, fashion styling at Marangoni, and made her experiences outside of our reality, and recently she approached our world instead. In my message to young people, obviously to follow first of all their passion, but to specialize in sectors that allow companies, even productive activities, to pay attention to, let’s say, the current market, therefore with an eye to the future.
Many companies, even those of a craft nature, often still work with blinders, they don’t understand that, let’s say, the market has now become global, so we need to think in a global perspective, no longer territorial or provincial or regional or national and consequently have to embrace a bit also those that are technologies, the latest technologies especially in terms of communication, matching with what are the Social, then understanding the language of young people, of Millennials and why those will be the market of the future. So surely one of my messages is to specialize, precisely in those areas, in everything that can allow Italian companies to turn to the market of the future, which is therefore the young, who will then one day have the capacity to spend, to be able then to, how to say, support manufacturing companies.
WOW ! WHAT AN INSIGHT INTO THE BRANDS HISTORY & EXISTENCE. THE STRAIGHT FORWARD INTERVIEW OF GIUSEPPE AQUILA DESERVES KUDOS. EXCELLENT PIECE OF INFORMATION & HISTORY. LOVED IT EVERY BIT. BE IT THE LANDMARKS WHERE AQILA’S BOUGHT BACK THE BRAND FROM RICHEMONT GROUP, THE ASSOCIATION WITH SLY & JEAN OR OTHER INTERESTING TIT BITS OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY USING MONTEGRAPPA, IT ALL DESERVES NOTHING LESS THAN A STANDING OVATION.