Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Olivetti the Italian Silicon Valley

If we were to ask you what Martini, Lavazza and FIAT have in common, what would you answer? And if we asked you how they are connected to Bialetti, AlessiZegna and Ferrero - think nutella and Ferrero Rocher?

Easy: Turin capital of Piedmont! 
Now imagine a company vision where the wellbeing of the workers directly translates into the highest productivity and revenues for the company itself, and you have the framework of most of our Piedmont companies and brands. 

The most famous and renowned Italian brands and symbols in the world originated by small family owned companies here in Piedmont. Martini in the late 1700s, FIAT in the late 1800s, Lavazza, Bialetti, Alessi and Ferrero in the early to mid 1900s. And their products are the results of the creativity of the company founders and their descendants.

To better understand the revolutionary impact of these business models we have to look at Adriano Olivetti, son of Camillo Olivetti who had registered his tiny typewriter company in Ivrea in 1908.
It's thanks to Adriano's socio-economical vision that the whole Canavese district in Piedmont has turned into the Silicon Valley of Italy in over 50 years.
In 1908 when the Olivetti company was registered, the Canavese district was mainly a rural area and FIAT had been registered for 10 years and hired only 50 workers.

Company aside, today, Ivrea is famous for its orange battle organized within its Carnival or Mardi Gras season, the only one in Italy with a plot based on historical events and that involves - like Olivetti did - the whole local community!
Ivrea, where Olivetti was based, is about one hour driving north from Turin and well connected by train. Nested near the Alps and studded with castles, it is the best location for many historical dramas and it's also home to Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG the only Italian white wine that earned the DOCG certification for all its 3 variants.

We certainly can't forget to mention our friend and Turin Epicurean Capital guest Jyothi Aimino who - following the visionary steps of Adriano Olivetti - founded L'Erm her very own winery to produce local Nebbiolos and Erbaluces with innovative techniques to revamp the local winemaking scene.
... and she has also resurrected long forgotten fruits for her natural jams and juices with a contemporary twist.

Photo courtesy of Jyothi Aimino 

One of the men who made Piedmont history and economy is definitely Adriano Olivetti who graduated in chemical engineering from the Polytechnic University in Turin, in 1924. During his studies he had the chance of getting exposed to reformist and liberal ideas and even published some political newspapers financed by his father Camillo. The Olivettis were non observant-Jews in a region, Piedmont, where the Jewish community had been established since the 1200s.

Just like all the FIAT male family members, after his graduation, Adriano also started to work in his family company as a blue-collar. After one year, he visited the Ford company in Detroit to learn about their production and organization and was very negatively impressed by the dehumanization of the workers' condition.This is why when he finally was promoted general director in 1932 and CEO in 1938, he could fully implement his economical vision. To Adriano the workers' wellbeing, and by extension the one of the whole local community gravitating around his company directly translated into a higher productivity and revenues. His investments in the company, the workers' education, their families, especially their wives and kids, was the key to the worldwide success of his products.

Other Piedmont company owners have copied his model too...  yet, when you look around Italy, the Piedmontese businesses are still pretty much an unordinary and yet unparallelled casestudy because their welfare system went beyond the mere company interests.

Of course when he was appointed CEO, history tried to hijack his plans but he managed to get a baptism certificate thanks to the Waldesian community his mom belonged to. This is the Italian branch of the Calvinist churches (Methodist Evangelical) that trading with the Netherlands and Belgium brought cocoa over to Piedmont in the 1600s and the 'gofri' our very own Piedmontese waffles or gaufres as you call them in French.

This is also one of the reasons why Olivetti was among the very few companies in Italy that didn't convert their production and just kept producing typewriters and electric calculators... just imagine that!

Naturally, as L'Erm founder, Jyothi Aimino reminds us, the flipside of the coin of having a flourishing industry was that the local vineyards and the agriculture were abandoned for the industrial production...

Yet, Adriano Olivetti's mind worked on a double track: 

- the business oriented one aiming to produce practical and aesthetic objects that seamlessly integrate in people's lives ... and that automatically, but silently, brought Ivrea and Olivetti around the world

- the social network that derived from Olivetti and that fed his own company in an endlessly intertwined cycle of investments and revenues spiralling up into a consistent growth.

This was a revolution for the Canavese district, for Piedmont, Italy and the whole world: as his small social business model rapidly extended worldwide with stores in the major cities of the world, production and research centers too. In fact, the Apple stores are inspired from the Olivetti stores and some of the Olivetti research centers are now museums.

His mission was his own company's success but its success implied that his whole local community would strive and benefit from it as much as it contributed to it. His charisma was infectitious and this is how he managed to put into practice most of his plan, only interrupted by the CIA inquiries. 

A real Renaissance man, he hired architects, designers and even artists like Xanti Schawinsky to design his typewriters. Today, the Olivetti Lettera 22 launched in 1950 is in the permanent collection of MoMa, in NY.

His humanist mindset and heart established that Olivetti would diversify its workforce and train all workers, not only its own. He didn't believe in close social casts without social movements, he thought that by hiring wealthy and poor, humanity graduates, artists as well as technicians and engineers he could achieve the best results. and he actually did. He even started the computing revolution in Italy only halted by his suspicious death. And yet, even when the Olivetti power over the company wasn't as strong, it was still Olivetti that produced the very first made in Italy PC.

This is why instead of a regular factory, in Ivrea, he created a "campus" with many services for his workers and their families with a library, a clinic, a theater with a nice calendar of shows, and little by little an educational center. He also invested in Ivrea and went even further than the Italian law by granting a longer (9.5 months) and better paid (80%) maternity leave to his workers; medical consultation and financial support and in 1957, he gave access to the polio vaccination way before it was mandatory by the Italian government. He even reduced the weekly working hours to 45 at the same salary!

View of the Canavese from L'Erm winery

The local community was fully supported and integrated in the company, in a vision of "redemption through work and elevation of their quality of life". Just imagine how scary this must have been for the American post-WW2 government in the 1950s and 1960s. And yet his legacy lived on even after his death, when in the 1970s the Ivrea school kids dreamed of eating at the Olivetti canteen with their parents because it had the flair of a restaurant!

Adriano Olivetti represents a pillar of the Italian economy and symbolizes the Italian entrepreneur but his interest in the arts was very strong soo. Just like his father Camillo who had financed some political newspapers, Adriano also founded NEI, a publishing company to give exposure to some avant-garde authors. 
He believed in educating all the workers and developed workshops and educational programs for his workers but also for other companies' workers with the purpose of training them to specific jobs and expanding their general knowledge. 

Adriano died in 1960, apparently his 'communist plans' represented a danger for the American government who had spied on him and his products since the 1950s.

His death marked the end of the most important company chapter and halted the Italian computer production for a while. When his son Roberto and his cousin Camillo took the reins of Olivetti that's when the family power started to weaken. However, the old Olivetti survived till the end of the 1990s when it acquired an Italian phone company and then changed name.

Since 2001 you can walk through the outdoor museum of Olivetti history in Ivrea where you can see the old company buildings, an example of corporate architecture and design.

It is interesting to note that Adriano's brother, Dino Olivetti shared his passion for art and compassion for the people in dire situations as you can see in Big Eyes the movie directed by Tim Burton about the American painter, Margart Keane, famous for her kids with the big eyes:

Adriano Olivetti was the soul of Ivrea and its community and his business philosophy is still remembered as the local golden age by those lucky ones who enjoyed it.

All computer geeks will have heard about Massimo Banzi's Arduino, an open source project and more, all connected to the vision of Ivrea and the Italian Silicon Valley as started by Adriano Olivetti. In fact, Arduino was the marquis of Ivrea in 990 till his death in 1015 AND king of Italy in 1002-1014 😲

Thanks to science fiction author, Bruce Sterling we had the chance to meet Massimo Banzi, Italian astronaut Cap. Samantha Cristoforetti and MoMa design curetor Paola Antonelli at Casa Jasimina's here in Turin, in 2016 when we gave our epicurean touch to the Share Festival.

When you visit Northern Italy, you should definitely plan at least a couple days in the Ivrea area, devoting part of your time to the Olivetti legacy and the rest to the wineries, farms, the castles, its cookies, secret recipe cake and... naturally, the Carnival celebrations if you happen to be in town in January and February.

Keep in mind you can conveniently reach Ivrea by train from Turin!

E-mail Lucia: 

to plan and book your tours, tastings and classes and if you are planning to move to Piedmont 

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