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Soap maker’s success shows that also traditional, family-run businesses contribute to exports

by  Chiara Beghelli

It is not just hi-tech multinationals that start off in a garage. There are small, high-quality, craftsman-like businesses like Nesti Dante, one of the oldest Italian soap factories, which started out in the poverty-stricken, creative Italy in the wake of WWII. “Grandpa was cycling to the butcher’s when he got a flat tire, so by the time he reached the shop, all that was left was some fat. Someone suggested using it to make soap and that was how he began: in his garage, with a 50-liter cauldron he’d built himself.”

The story of Nesti Dante is told by the founder’s granddaughter, 30-year-old Carolina Nesti, who is leading the business into the future. [Translator’s Note: Italians often invert first name and surname; the founder’s name was actually Dante Nesti but the firm is called Nesti Dante.] Carolina is the one who orchestrates the soaps’ fragrances and active ingredients and designs the hand-drawn packaging for a business that’s been producing soap for almost seventy years. Today, it is headquartered in San Donnino, just outside Florence, counts twenty employees, manufactures 250,000 soaps a day and is still proudly family-run, closing 2015 with a turnover of €10 million, slightly more than in 2014; and the growth trend is expected to continue into 2016.

Nesti’s is one of two Italian factories that still use the Marseille soap-making method, which entails four days’ heating in cauldrons and one day’s setting, and guarantees the highest quality product. Only vegetable oils are used here, and the raw materials come from Tuscan terroir as much as possible, like the inspiration for all new products: “We focus on promoting Florence and Italian craftsmanship; it’s the key to our success all over the world,” says Carolina. “Our current distribution network covers some 70 countries, from the UK to Japan, from the US to Brazil; our soaps even supply the island of Guam in the Pacific, albeit after a month and a half’s journey. China and Russia are growing, and the Middle East is also doing very well.”

Worldwide, the winning feature is the soaps’ “Italian style,” the natural yet sophisticated floral fragrances that are most in demand today, as well as a selection of fruity aromas (new items feature Marasca Cherry & Red Berries, Quince Pear & Mint, Medlar & Jujube), not forgetting soaps with medicinal plants and a soap with 23-carat gold, launched in 2007 for the firm’s 60th anniversary (“our bestseller to date”), soon to be flanked by another anniversary edition – Nesti Dante’s 70th – with colloidal platinum.

Exports now cover approximately half of production: “We have chosen to offer competitive price points, even though it means containing profit margins.” The strategy is clear: “We don’t aim to be the biggest, only the best,” thus staying “small” and continuing to manage the company on their own, according to their high standards and principles. “We still use my grandfather’s equipment and do the repair work ourselves. Setting un a soap factory like our own today would be too expensive even for a multinational,” Carolina smiles.