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CEOs at ABB, Toyota and Unilever agree: Italy is not getting fair treatment for all it has to offer

“Human capital.” If there is one common denominator coming up constantly when speaking with top managers of foreign companies operating in Italy is the reference to the exceptional skills, both professional and inter-relational, of Italian workers. This is also the main reason why companies like ABB, Toyota Material Handling and Unilever, have decided to open factories in the country years ago and have jumped at the chance of participating as partner companies in the creation of the new Global Competitiveness Index. And they all agree that right now Italy is not getting the recognition it deserves as one of the most important global economies.

“When we were asked to participate – explains Matteo Marini, president of ABB Italia – we were absolutely enthused and personally I was even more so. When you work for a multinational company where each subsidiary vies to get more attention and strategic resources from the headquarters, you obviously find yourself in a better position if the country that you’re representing enjoys a positive image rather than not. Italy is a wonderful country where there is so much talent and we want to be a part of the push to improve efficiency and attractiveness.” In order to achieve this, Marini says, the government must invest heavily on innovation if it wants improvement to be sustainable over the long period.

“Right now Italy invests €20 billion every year in research and development – he notes – and it sounds like a big number but if you think that the German region of Baden-Wurttermberg invests that same amount of money alone then you get a better picture of what must be done. So we need more investments on R&D and the government must act swiftly to bring about Industry 4.0 which means more automation, more artificial intelligence but also more education and training. Small and medium enterprises, which are the backbone of our economy, must be helped in their innovation effort by public and private funds.” Marini suggests the state should impose on banks to set aside a percentage of their revenues to be invested in supporting companies transform and innovate.

Leonardo Salcerini, Managing Director of Toyota Handling Material, is also a steadfast believer in the potential of the country where the Japanese company arrived at the beginning of 2000. “It always saddens me when I see Italy rank way too low in international surveys – he explains – and for sure when travelling around the world I never had really the impression that situation elsewhere is better than here. Certainly these rankings at times have made it more difficult to explain to top management in Japan why we should invest in Italy but fortunately at Toyota we pay utmost attention to human capital and so investment decisions have been made anyway.”

In just a little more than 15 years, Toyota Handling Material has greatly grown in size in the country and now employs 2,000 workers in three different facilities. “They often say that productivity in Italy has been stagnant in the last two decades – Salcerini explains – but I can tell you a different story. When in 2000 we bought Cesab, a company in Bologna, it was making about 2,400 electric forklift a year with 220 employees. Now it makes 14,000 with about 350 employees. So obviously there has been a huge improvement in productivity, of course also thanks to the introduction of new machinery, but the work-force has proven all its qualities. I would say this is also a case of a perfect combination between Italian human capital and Japanese, or better, Toyota’s way of doing things and getting the best out of people and workers.”

To further improve the competitiveness of the country, Salcerini adds, it is important that the government invests more on continuous learning for people already working but at the same time that it develops strategies aimed at helping the new generations, which are the only ones who can ensure the future of the country.

The need for a better representation of Italy’s true degree of attractiveness is also seen by Angelo Trocchia, president and CEO of Unilever Italia, a company with more than 3,500 employees and €1,4 billion revenues in 2015. “I have travelled extensively before returning to Italia to head Unilever Italia – Trocchia says – and I can definitely say that foreigners often have a perception that does not correspond to the real situation of the country. At Unilever we have always gone beyond these superficial perceptions as we have been operating in Italy in the last fifty years but there is no doubt that the incorrect ranking Italy often receives can weigh on the inflows of foreign direct investments. Italy therefore needs a better marketing and a better positioning of its brand because there is a lot of potential here but there is also a lot of history, of industrial expertise and an extraordinary human capital”.

Trocchia values positively what the government has done in the past several years on the reform front, Jobs Act included, but thinks that Italy would greatly benefit in terms of economic attractiveness, and in wealth tout-court, if more was done to sustain consumer spending. “Our economy – he explains – relies too much on exports while not much attention is given to consumer spending, which for example accounts for about 70% of US GDP. A plan to help companies that innovate and to foster consumer spending would greatly improve the degree of attractiveness of the country and would help the economy grow at a quicker pace than what’s happening now.”