Cristina, Successor of her Parent's Business
Since more than half a century Cristina's family owns a leather workshop in Milan. During the last decade they had to become innovative to stay competitive in a changing market.
You first chose a different path, but eventually decided to work with your family. How did it happen?
Cristina: I studied Economy and Management for a couple of years but it didn't work out very well; I realised I'm more a practical person than a theorist. After that I worked for a company that had nothing to do with leather or fashion. I wanted to experience something different at that time. I wasn't sure if this would actually be the right job for me. When that company had to close down and I received other offers I figured it was finally time to come here.
You have obviously mastered the craftsmanship. Did you already spend some time here in the past?
Cristina: Well, I was born into a family of craftspeople and as both my mother and father worked here I used to come to the workshop every day after school. I played with pieces of material that had fallen from the workbenches and I remember how they used to give me adhesive tape to stick pieces together and make my own creations. Later, I came and helped out every now and then.
What do you like most about your job?
Cristina: I really like the relationship with the customers: understanding their tastes and what they want and then making it happen in terms of technical realisation. Our customers speak directly to me, I'm the one who knows precisely what product they want us to create and how. So when I check the workbenches I know I'm able to make sure that everything is being done as it should be. Being a craftswoman myself, understanding how to make a wallet, or a bag, for example, enables me to really guide the whole process of realisation.
Do you have a personal interest in fashion and design?
Cristina: Yes, I always liked looking at and wearing nice things. Presentation is important when part of your job is representing the company to the clients.
What is it like to work with your family?
Cristina: It doesn't run smoothly all the time and naturally things can get
personal. There can be some heated discussions, but then we talk things
through and get back on the right path.
The older generation have decades' worth of knowledge and experience, but technology is progressing and one has to move with it in some ways. In my opinion, the reason that many smaller businesses in Italy have had to close down is because they have failed to modernize their production processes.
Your father just joined us now. He still comes in every day, doesn't he?
Cristina: (laughs) Yes, last summer he was supposed to go on a 3 week holiday
but after 6 days he turned home, relaxing at the sea around Italy's most
beautiful beaches was unbearable for him, he had been missing the workshop
Angelo: (laughs) It was really too much of the same view for me.
You obviously are very passionate about your work. What is your favourite part?
Angelo: My favourite part is creating the prototypes and sample collections. I work with the designers, bringing their ideas to life. I like the technical challenges of developing the products they have designed, of making sure the finished piece works, is usable and practial.
How and when did you begin to work in this sector?
Angelo: When we left school my two brothers and I began as apprentices in a company producing leather goods. Several years later, we opened a workshop of our own. I began in 1965 so I've been working in this sector for more than 50 years.
You have had more than 10 employees for many decades and are one of the few remaining leather workshops in the region. Do you think businesses like yours have a future?
Angelo: It's difficult, because small businesses like ours rely on enthusiastic
employees and we want to be able to reward them.
Previously, I was able to significantly raise the wages of my best-skilled and long-term employees in proportion with the passing years; this has become increasingly difficult. Competing against low-price and low-quality producers in Italy and abroad has become a constant struggle.
Hopefully, there will be a change of attitude towards high-quality leather goods and the heritage we have in Italy. Then we will again be able to offer better bonus systems to our employees.
What is it like to work with your family?
Angelo: (Laughs) It is not easy. It is not easy to work with your own family, not even with your own children. You have to find compromises but, as we know, everyone has their own personality and opinions, and my daughter has them too (laughs). But she is doing great and without her strong engagement the business probably could not continue.
Have you made any changes since working here, based on Cristina's education and experience in management and administration?
Cristina: Surviving as artisans in Europe is about managing, modernising, integrating machines and improving efficiency. Nowadays it is purely about the right workflow, with the working methods of the past we cannot compete. This is an old family business; introducing changes to its system and mindset isn't easy. Through persistence, I've managed to integrate more machines. Nowadays you really have to think about optimum workflow and that sometimes means letting go of some of the working methods of the past. So yes, I've implemented some changes, but in my opinion we still need to integrate some more advanced technologies into the production process. Step by step we are getting there.
If you could, what would you change about the leather industry in Italy?
Cristina: Introducing very strict control of labour rights would be something
important for our country. Many companies treat their employees unfairly and
without respect. The salaries are not nearly high enough for the workers to live
off; it enters the territory of human trafficking and slavery - this is the price
being paid for the lower cost of goods. It's wrong in every way.
Angelo: I would establish a national education programm for traditional crafts. We have a unique heritage of craftsmanship in this country and a responsibility to preserve it for future generations. If we do not train the young people and pass on our knowledge, Italian craftsmanship will be lost.
Since a few years I see that craftsmanship is valued again, there is a lot of talk about it, therefore I am positive that Cristina may one day give to one of my grandchildren or to a passionate future artisan.
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