True to form: an interview with Smeg CEO Vittorio Bertazzoni

Author: John Irving

"What I like most about my job is following a new product through every stage in its development, from creation and design to production and sale," says Vittorio Bertazzoni, CEO of Smeg, the company famous for home appliances so stylish its motto is "Tecnologia che arreda", technology and style rolled into one.

The acronym Smeg stands for Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla: the Emilian enamel works of Guastalla. The latter is a small town near Parma; Emilia is the northern Italian region in which it lies. Today the company's headquarters are at San Girolamo, a tiny village just outside Guastalla. It's here that Bertazzoni and I meet, in a sleek one-storey office building designed by architect Guido Canali, tucked away among greenery on an man-made lake. "The idea was to create harmony between architecture and nature," says Bertazzoni.

He's dressed like a contemporary captain of industry - navy-blue jacket, sky-blue shirt, blue tie with geometric motifs, tan corduroy trousers - but his blue eyes, framed by longish light-brown hair and a beard, and lofty physique give him the air of a friendly Viking. He's a busy man who spends a lot of time between offices and aeroplanes, but he obviously finds ways of keeping in trim. "Yes, when I can, I like to get outdoors. I adore going sailing at Porto Venere in Liguria, where I have a yacht, and hiking in the Dolomites."

Bertazzoni, now 40, joined the Smeg board as a slip of a youth in 1998 and was appointed CEO in 2007. In between, he graduated in law at the University of Parma, and then studied comparative labour law at St Peter's College, Oxford. To gain work experience he did a two-year stint at Arthur Andersen, the multinational auditors in New York, after which he returned to Italy for a year at the Mediobanca investment bank in Milan. Bertazzoni is proud of his roots.

"We Emilians are very industrious people. We're known for our engineering and our food. Even before the last war we were manufacturing planes and cars."

Think Ferrari, Ducati, Maserati, Lamborghini.

"And we've been producing Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese for a thousand years. Then there's prosciutto di Parma."

"And Lambrusco," I say.

"And culatello and stuffed pasta," he says.

By channelling its manufacturing know how into the kitchen in the form of cookers, fridges, and smaller appliances, Smeg embodies both of the region's vocations. Not to mention the fact that Bertazzoni's family also produces superb Parmigiano-Reggiano at their dairy farm in the foothills of the Apennines, south-west of Parma.

Much of the three-hour drive down to Guastalla from Turin has taken me along the deceptively named Po Valley, actually a vast floodplain of numbing flatness. From the busy fogbound Autostrada A1, flanked by factories and warehouses, exhibition centres and industrial parks that impede any view of the countryside, it's hard to imagine this is Italy's agricultural heartland. I know that beyond the industrial clutter are fertile fields stretching to the horizon, but they can't be seen. The names on the buildings - Amazon, Ikea - speak of an invasion by multinationals, but family firms still survive. Smeg is one of them.

"The company was founded by my grandfather Vittorio, who I was named after, in 1948," he tells me.

'Those must have been tough years," I muse.

"Yes, they were. The war had just ended, the country was in disarray, and tensions were still raw. But there was also a desire to start afresh, to create something new. In the 1930s Nonno Vittorio had been a stovemaker. He brought all his experience to bear in the new endeavour. In the 1950s the company produced mainly cookers."

"The years of the famous 'economic miracle'?

"Yes. People had money to spend and there was a big demand for household appliances. But the products companies were commercialising were virtually identical. When my father, Roberto, took over the reins in 1971, he gave the business a new dimension. He was the first in the sector to collaborate with great architects and designers to produce kitchen appliances that were also timeless objets d'art. It was a courageous move."

The added value of Italian design?

"Sure. Everyone loves the idea of Italian lifestyle. We transmit it through our products. Italian design is ultimately the fruit of thousands of years of art and culture. Growing up among the marvels of Parma as I did, a certain amount of artistic sensibility is bound to rub off on you."

True, Parma is a classy, stylish city, but little Guastalla, where I'd popped in to have a look around on my way to Smeg's head office, also has its fair share of art treasures. For 200 years, from the early 16th century, it was ruled by the Gonzaga family of Mantua, just 35 kilometres away, and they had built the Palazzo Ducale and the Municipio on the pretty, porticoed Piazza Mazzini. On the same piazza there's also a Renaissance cathedral with an imposing Baroque façade. Unfortunately it was impossible to go in - restoration work was still under way after the damage caused by an earthquake in 2012.

The artistic sensibility Bertazzoni speaks of is also evident in the foyer of the Smeg office building. Paintings by Lisa Ruyter, Michael van Ofen and Ray Smith adorn the walls, and sculptures, including one of Arnaldo Pomodoro's signature exploding globes, are scattered across the floor space.

There's also a permanent display that charts a timeline of Smeg production: vintage cookers (very popular with Russian customers apparently), minimalist built-in Classic ovens, bombé retro Fab fridges in a multitude of colours and designs (the Italian tricolore, the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the jerseys of miscellaneous soccer and rugby teams) and striking new stoves on which little birds and leaves and fruit and butterflies replace conventional surface elements.

I ask Bertazzoni about them. "It's a new line I've called Dolce Stil Nuovo. I enjoy literary references," he says.

The name, "sweet new style", was coined by Dante in the 13th century to defi ne a new poetic genre. "It has that unique touch of folly so typical of Italian design," says Bertazzoni. "Instead of a cooktop you have a work of art."

The same can be said of the Smeg fridge installed in the engine compartment of a Fiat 500. "That was my idea," he says. "Two Italian design icons in one. The project brought me into contact with [Fiat heir apparent] Lapo Elkann, who has a tremendous sense of style. He subsequently came up with the idea for Independent Fab, a fridge wrapped in denim."

More recently, Dolce & Gabbana has joined forces with Smeg to produce a limited-edition series of brilliantly coloured fridges that evoke the Sicilian puppet-theatre tradition, which is also the leitmotif of their 2016 summer collection.

And Smeg's projects for the future? "We intend to develop our '50s Retro Style line of small appliances: toasters, stand mixers, kettles, blenders," says Bertazzoni. "I think the present-day passion for healthy eating and cooking is a good thing. Even TV shows like MasterChef have a part to play, making people more creative in the kitchen and more attentive to quality. Habits are changing, and I'm happy if our products help them to make healthy dishes."

Anything else? "Yes, we're also branching out into wine coolers."

The future looks good for Smeg. It has three plants in Italy and a diff use global presence with 20 subsidiaries in as many countries, including Australia. The company sells 80 per cent of its products abroad and is currently expanding in Mexico and Turkey. "Istanbul is my favourite city after Rome," says Bertazzoni.

As he approaches his 10th year in the hot seat, what does he regard as his greatest achievement so far?

"The fact that I've always managed to stay faithful to our corporate philosophy. I became CEO on the eve of the financial crisis, which was profounder here in Italy than elsewhere. Despite that, without stooping to compromise, we've kept all our production at our three plants in Italy, recorded 40 per cent growth since 2009, and doubled our offices abroad.

"Put simply, end consumers across the world have rewarded us for the quality and creativity of our products. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, we Italians are more inventive than most."

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