Story by Illeana Cortessi
“Buon giorno tutti!” said the bus driver as he was taking us into the city of Verona. We had finally arrived and, though tired, we were excited for the first day of our journey. We entered the hostel, up to our rooms, and started getting ready for our first traditional Italian dinner. We got to interact with the other students, the teaching assistants and the professor and got a first taste of life in Italy. We were off to an exciting start. The next day, we had a short orientation during which we were given the basic tools for survival: maps, emergency contacts, a detailed schedule of the two following weeks and free passes for museums and transportation and a short Italian language class.
Not losing any time, our mission to study family businesses in Verona and Sicily was soon to begin. Our first stop was at a restaurant downtown known for its delicious pizza, pasta and gelato. We got to meet the owner, who explained how crucial to his success was the fact that the business was family owned. His father started the business with a small pizza place and a generation later, the company had expanded to four restaurants in two of the most “in” piazzas of Verona. We learned how important it is to innovate, renovate and restyle constantly in a highly competitive industry.
We were soon to find out that all businesses both in the South and in the North bore some similar characteristics. They were all family businesses and very successful, they were very competitive, innovative and determined to work hard in order to stay in the business. Our mission as a class was to study the businesses beforehand, do a short presentation on our way there, meet the owners and the staff and learn more about the companies. Studying the companies on our own helped me improve my research skills but the most interesting part of all was asking personal questions to the owners of the companies, to their children who worked there and to the rest of the staff. Common questions were “What is your secret?”, “What are the most important qualities that someone needs to become an entrepreneur?”, “How is it to work with family?”, and “why did you decide to join the family business?”
The answers although always different, boiled down to the same main points. The secret was loving the job. They chose a career that fascinated them and motivated them to wake up in the morning. That is why they were so successful. There were people who started off in one department and ended up in another; their secret was being open to trying new things and finding a perfect fit. Also important was that everyone’s voice was heard, no matter their standing in the company. In this way, everyone remained happy and conflicts were resolved more quickly. On top of that, many of the coming generations that had joined the family business had grown up in a working environment they were allowed to visit daily. That stimulus had inspired them to become part of the family business, and they would enter the workforce with tons of experience. The most important tools to success were determination, persistence, passion and the will to innovate and pioneer.
Moving on to the family related questions, people said that working with people so close to them was both a blessing and a challenge. Parents had to be strict with their children so they would not be seen by the rest as the favored employees and the children in turn had to work very hard to prove their worth. Many of them went to college, while some acquired a master’s degree and worked for another company to gain experience. They all agreed that working with people directly related to you was a gift as they trusted each other and all wanted the same thing: success.
My summer in Italy taught me many things. Coming from Greece, where family businesses are also very common, it felt like home. I got to meet powerful and successful leaders and understood that if there is a will, there is always a way; especially when you have your own family to fall back on.