The presence of Italian businesses in New Jersey is impressive. Most recently at Montclair State University, the Italian program and the Inserra Chair are introducing a series of initiatives to discover them. These new synergies align with the objectives of my business Italian course and to better understand what it means to do business in this geographic area, where there is not only a strong Italian heritage but also a fondness of all things Italian, I invited Francesco de Grossi, Senior Vice President of Safilo USA, whose US headquarters are located not far from campus, in Parsippany.
His testimonial, “From Bologna to the World: Italian tradition and know-how on the international market,” followed by a Q&A with my business Italian students and international marketing students of Feliciano School of Business colleague Ric Jensen, was a success. VP de Grossi then sat down to chat with me about New Jersey and Safilo, the international market and Italian language and culture.
Francesco de Grossi is passionate about Made in Italy: the workmanship, the attention to detail and the focus on quality. As senior Vice President of Safilo USA for over 20 years, Mr. de Grossi, an alumnus of Italy’s oldest university the University of Bologna, previously worked with Nike America as liaison for the Middle East. In his 12th year with this American company, he received a call from a headhunter recommending him for a position with Safilo USA in New Jersey. He hadn’t ever heard of either of them. It was an incredible experience. Hired over the phone, he took a plane to NJ on January 5, 1997, the day before the Epiphany, and agreed to a two-year contract. Twenty years later…
Safilo’s American headquarters are in New Jersey. How did that come to be?
“That is a very interesting question. I will share what I can recall. Safilo in the U.S. was in the hands of a distributor who had selected certain locations according to his business. When Safilo arrived on the scene and took over, they left the offices in Fairfield, NJ, the factory in New York and they kept the Edison factory.
When I arrived 20 years ago, we moved from Fairfield to Parsippany. We took over the offices that had belonged to Tiffany, the jeweler, which was a large distribution center with offices around it. It was from there that we managed distribution to Canada and America, and we now have 120 sunglasses boutiques called Solstice. Initially that warehouse served both prescription frames and sunglasses. Subsequently, we took over a company called Outlook that specializes in price entry-level eyewear and is located in Denver, Colorado, so we opted to move management of sunglasses to the offices in Denver. Since sunglasses are tied to fashion, department stores, and volume cycles are managed and tied to month end, which sees great peaks, while prescription eyewear tends to be more flat. So we try to be in places where there is great flexibility to manage these cycles. So sunglasses went to Denver and optics stayed in Parsippany. Then we closed the prescription eyewear warehouse and that too went to Denver. In May, our offices will be moving from Parsippany to Secaucus.”
Closer to New York, then?
“Yes. The company is seeking to acquire new talent that is university students who have just graduated and want to work. The idea is the closer you are to the city, the easier it will be to attract young new talent. What’s more is that we have show room on Fifth Ave. in New York, from where we manage our department stores, our Solstice chain, and it’s much easier to manage, to have a central office closer to the city”.
How strong is the bond between Safilo in Padua and the US headquarters in NJ?
“Above all the North American business segment comprises approximately 40% of Safilo Group, thus there is a strong connection especially now as we are transition from a family-owned business to a corporation. It definitely facilitates more centralized and global management. We are more and more implementing cross-training; we have managers and people from Padua coming to the U.S. to assist in setting up a certain plan, to share experiences, and to learn. We try to be global while at the same time locally relevant, so it’s an important time for us. It is evident that there are strong connections that will continue to develop even more. The idea is that in reality, wherever you are in the world, the Safilo spirit stays the same. It’s clear that implementation will be relevant locally speaking but the spirit, the process, contacts and know-how… it’s important that they remain global.”
Is the American market the largest?
“No, the European market is rather parenthetical is not slightly larger. Next is the American market.”
And the Asian market?
It’s a gamble in that it’s a strong evolution and requires a very specific market presence varies from one market to the next. Their traditions are very strong so this makes it quite a gamble for the future. There is great potential. In the past, people—especially when we speak of the Chinese market which simply speaking is the market par excellence for the future of eyewear—afforded themselves the luxury of buying luxury products abroad and not in China. Clearly, it’s necessary that we slowly begin to grow significantly the Chinese market so consumer purchase foreign products in China.”
As a matter of fact, it seems like Chinese tourists do shop quite a bit in the U.S. and Italy.
“So much so that tourists, let’s call them Chinese consumers, are increasingly growing this middle category for China. It’s a process that has been under way for many years and is now taking considerable shape, appreciating all of that which is Made in Italy, for example, because made in China is considered cheap and they usually support shopping abroad.”
How does Safilo represent Made in Italy?
“There are two ways of looking at Made in…. One is the country of origin, so then it’s logical that a product is made in a certain country and dons those known qualities of the country.
When we speak of Made in Italy, we always speak to fashion, design, quality, detail, so it’s logical that any business entity or any industry that follows these, as they are legal regulations—it’s not like I can just put a Made in Italy stamp on it; it must have a production guarantee and must also meet these characteristics.
It is important, in this case Safilo does an excellent job, to marry that which is detail, quality and research with Made in Italy and to not undervalue the strength of the Made in Italy brand.”
During the Q&A, you asserted the importance of establishing relationships between businesses and universities. What is the value of this type of relationship?
“Absolutely important. Students pursue their studies to land the job they want, but it becomes productive as an investment. If I already know of a company for which I could possibly work, at that point together with the company and the university, we can prepare them for future positions in a specific way.
I believe that it is truly important for students to be present in a work environment so they understand what it means from the start. Many times there are theoretical ideas about what it means to work in a certain industry or position. Perhaps it could be that if I test the waters, so to speak, and the position isn’t what I thought it was, or I don’t like it, or perhaps I would like to something else. It is important that there are these checks, live if you will, because they help students take the right path and the company to make more specific requests. As it happens, the apprenticeship program at the Product School we’ve established in Italy is an effective attempt to prepare future workers for what is needed.”
Did you have an opportunity to do an internship while at the University of Bologna?
“At that time it was definitely different. These relationships did not exist. First, Italy has always been shy about developing these relationships—they have been blocks and rather closed-minded. I did have paid summer internships but it was more with the objective of saving money for general expenses, not associated to what could have been relevant to my degree. I did indeed travel a lot… that is I backpacked. I believe that is it very important to have those travel experiences because they improve your vision, not only of that which surrounds you but also to teach you to view things through different eyes, so you can understand particular problems and needs. Especially true now in a globalized world; it’s a very important word but not that easy to put it into effect because it requires the ability to adapt to what could be different local needs.”
What has changed in your experience with Safilo from 20 years ago to the present?
“In the beginning, Safilo was seen more as a distributor not an overseas branch, even though we were in fact a branch office that was managed as a distributor. Many of the people who moved from distribution to the branch office still had that mentality or approach to business. What I have seen is progress: in reality, back then there was more in terms of sales, there would be an order, the products arrived, there was no global approach to introduce the business strategy, the product, the image. There was more of a budget object, an economic one. Each country was left to manage quite independently the daily business. Today, this is no longer true. We are a true global company and as such we want strategies to be adopted at the global level; but let’s be clear, there could be some interpretations that can differ according to the local needs, yet there is definitely a stronger global presence. The component that is present is the same in different parts of the world.”
What were your first impressions of New Jersey?
“When people say NJ, you often tend to think of Newark, crime, mafia, concrete… it is not perceived well in the U.S. Actually, I discovered that NJ is an incredible sight, where there is a very diverse cultural presence, a presence that extends beyond the U.S., if you will. I play tennis with Americans among whom there is a South African, a Brit, an Italian; such a beautiful mix. What’s more is its physical geography is very beautiful. I love the outdoors, mountain biking, tennis, kayaking; there are lakes and wooded areas, it’s an incredible sight, truly a spectacular surprise that we should try to keep secret… NJ is small and there are too many people, so if we proclaim that it’s nice to live here, then it’ll be… I’m positively impressed.”
What do you miss about Italy?
“I’m in Italy monthly so I don’t miss anything that much, except my original family. I am the eldest of 7 brothers and sisters. My father was a pediatrician (who passed away recently) and as a pediatrician he opted to quickly create his own clientele, starting at home.”
“What is the role of the Italian language and culture in your family?
“These are very important choices in the home. We fortunately have always maintained an emphasis on our origins, our heritage. So my wife is Anglo-Saxon and has spoken English and I have always spoken Italian. For two year with our children we lived in Italy when I worked with Nike America managing the Middle East, and I spoke Italian, she spoke English. For them, however, it was initially just one language, they would choose the word that was simpler: mela instead of “apple,” or “cheese” instead of formaggio. When we arrived here it was the same thing, she continued to speak in English and I in Italian. One must be strong because clearly for children it’s something quite different and there may be some negative reactions. Now, are children are grateful because they speak their mother tongue and their “father” tongue.
And in the world of business?
Fundamentally in certain sectors, fashion, design, food, it is essential. It’s very important also because learning a language means learning its culture and that is a gateway to understanding a different world.”