A little more than thirty years ago, Harvard’s Business History Review published an essay by Franco Amatori (Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management) on Entrepreneurial typologies in the history of industrial Italy. In it, Amatori outlined three typologies of Italian entrepreneurs: the “Genovese” (from the name of the city where they were concentrated) who operated in the steel, shipbuilding, and shipping sectors and who, from right after the nation’s unification, took advantage of the State’s protectionistic measures, subsidies and industrial rescues; the “Milanese” who were known for their orientation towards markets, exportation and innovation; and then a “hybrid” version which was best represented by Fiat’s founder, Giovanni Agnelli, who had no qualms with the State’s protectionism, commissions and favors, but at the same time showed himself to be Schumpeterian entrepreneur and the first in Italy to understand that the automobile wasn’t a toy for the affluent but a consumer good that would attract the masses.
His first published essay in English appeared in the Fall 1980 issue of BHR and a few months ago Amatori returned to the “scene of the crime” (Entrepreneurial Typologies in the History of Industrial Italy: Reconsiderations, in Business History Review 85, Spring 2011, 151-180, doi: 10.1017/S0007680511000067) to re-evaluate some of the themes associated with entrepreneurship that have come out in the last decades. In his latest essay, Amatori reconfirmed and better articulated some of the typologies of 1980. For example, Giovanni Agnelli is compared with Guido Donegani, the important founder of Montecatini, Italy’s largest chemical manufacturer in the 20th century.
But three important changes are also noted. First, entrepreneurs no longer have the negative connotations that characterized the Italian mindset back in the Eighties. Second, Amatori notes the enormous progress that business history has made in Italy, culminating in the initiative of Enciclopedia Italiana for a Biographical Dictionary of Entrepreneurs which was coordinated by a group of Bocconi scholars. But, in Amatori’s opinion, the most significant change has been the evolution of history itself. The 1980 article examined the period from 1880 until 1960. In his latest essay he’s been able to bring the comparison up to present day and, most importantly, examine the critical period between 1960 and 1980. These two decades were historically determinant for Italy which, after the fabulous times of the the “Economic Miracle”, seemed to be positioned as a front-runner in the world’s economy. But things turned out differently. Italy didn’t make the leap and the result probably explains the origins of today’s decline.
From the business historian’s perspective, it’s easy to finger the guilty party: the State and political forces. In fact, at the height of its success, the State as Entrepreneur that came to the forefront in the Thirties should have (as happened in other nations) taken a step backward and allow a process of privatizations to begin. Italy, instead, experienced an expansion due in large part to criteria associated with electoral consensus rather than strategic planning. On the other hand, neither the State nor political parties had brought about a legislative and institutional framework that would foster the success of enterprise.
In the early 60s Italy lacked legislation for antitrust, effective protection of stock market investors, or incentives for institutional investors while banking legislation at the time (which didn’t permit in-house banks) showed its limitations. Extremely important was the country’s inability to find adequate institutional channels for dealing with the bitter social conflict brought about by the major changes of the 1950s.
The era marked the defeat of big business (both private as well as public) and the failure of the latter, especially as it had evolved in the southern part of the nation. One of the most striking results was organized crime’s attack on the State in at least three regions.
The BHR essay wouldn’t be complete without examining the man who today is probably the country’s best known entrepreneur, Silvio Berlusconi, whom Amatori describes as an entrepreneur conquering the State in the section dedicated to him. Without a doubt, Berlusconi is an entrepreneur, having shown it with his vast and innovative residential complexes as well as with his commercial television networks. He moved, however (especially in the TV industry), like someone for whom the rules in effect in other advanced nations (antitrust, for example) did not exist either in the present nor in the future.
From the ashes of big business came the phenomenon of small firms, often organized into industrial districts-- homogeneous territories where the focus was on manufacturing a single product that required a sophisticated division of labor (both horizontal as well as vertical). This was a form of production with strong roots in Italy’s history. One major outcome of the industrial districts has been a sort of “fourth capitalism” served by mid-sized firms. It’s been called “Fourth” capitalism because it doesn’t correspond to the old criteria as it has neither small nor large public or private firms. With annual sales between 150 million and 1.5 billion euros, today these firms number more than one thousand. They are a niche - but in a global context - so they’re often referred to as “pocket multinationals”. These are the firms that lead us to hope for a metamorphosis (rather than a decline) within what all of us envision as a real process of European integration.