Gianvito Rossi recalls a childhood of shuttling between his home and the factory owned by his father, Sergio Rossi, where artisans were laboriously hunched over their work benches, toiling away.
“Unconsciously, I started to accumulate experience just by watching my father and observing the artisans as they crafted the most amazing shoes. Without knowing it, I was building a historical memory,” said the designer, who worked alongside his father, the founder of the Sergio Rossi brand, until it was sold to Gucci Group (now Kering) in 1999.
When the younger Rossi launched his namesake brand in 2006, he quickly realized that the experience he had gained during his formative years would be valuable. “Fashion trends are cyclical — they come and go,” the designer said. “For example, when I was small, wedges were hot, so when they came back, all I had to do was reimagine certain concepts.”
Now, Gianvito is passing the baton to his son, Nicola, 22, who has finished his studies and is cutting his teeth at the company, learning about production. (The designer also has an 18-year-old daughter, who is still in school.)
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As clichéed as it can sound, la famiglia continues to be a tried-and-true way of life in Italy, where close-knit families scattered throughout the Marche, Veneto and Tuscany regions still rule the footwear industry — thanks in large part to their passion for craftsmanship and ability to adapt to a fast-changing business.
Joining the family enterprise is often a natural and expected step in the country, with parents serving as mentors to their children and transferring wisdom accumulated from their own parents or siblings as well as on the job.
“Our family business is a great opportunity. We are very close, and we always work together,” said Giuseppe Santoni, CEO at Santoni, which was launched as an artisanal workshop by his father, Andrea Santoni, in 1975 and is now expanding quickly to a global scale.
“I cannot consider myself a ‘second-generation’ man,” Santoni explained. “Sometimes my parents and I can have a different point of view about a specific matter, but our philosophy and mission are the same, so every decision is completely shared and supported by the whole family in the end.”
According to Edoardo Caovilla, creative director and COO of René Caovilla, shaping the future of a company requires the right kind of commitment and a willingness to make sacrifices, especially in today’s challenging times.
Caovilla joined his father’s company in 2009 after holding key positions at private equity funds, among other roles.
“The base for success is humbleness from both the founder, who needs to understand when it’s time to step down, and from the family member who is taking over,” Caovilla said, adding that the industry has undergone tremendous change in the past few decades. “Years ago, the market was tough but more local. Today, it offers great opportunities but is increasingly more complicated because you need to be abreast of luxury spending habits all over the world.”
In addition to learning to navigate the challenges of today’s complex footwear industry, families must set strict ground rules to make sure that operations run smoothly and avoid unnecessary conflict, according to Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of Salvatore Ferragamo. “Unfortunately, Italian families can be poisonous to the future of a company, with fights over inheritance and lineage. Hence, it’s important to have rules,” he noted.
In the case of his own family, Ferragamo said that after his father, Salvatore Ferragamo, died in 1960, it was decided that all six of the children — himself, Fulvia, the late Fiamma, Giovanna, Leonardo and Massimo — would earn the same salary, regardless of their roles. “[I was] CEO for 24 years. In the beginning, I was frustrated and complained to my mother [Honorary Chairman Wanda Ferragamo], but later I understood that [the salary parity] was right. If I had earned more than my brothers, we would have spent the time fighting instead of planning the company’s future,” he explained.
Ferragamo added that the siblings also decided to limit the number of their own children who were allowed to become part of the company: Only three of the 25 third-generation members could join. “They needed to have gained experience at another company for three years and understand that there are work hours and colleagues to respect,” Ferragamo said.
The chairman’s son, James Ferragamo, the brand’s women’s leather-goods director, is one of the three third-generation members who landed a role. “I know the family has worked hard to expand the company and keep it prospering,” he said. “A family business goes beyond a shareholder’s involvement or financial interests because there’s an emotional involvement. I never had any doubt that I wanted to be part of it.”
Diego Rossetti, president of Fratelli Rossetti, remembers his early years at the company, which he runs with his two brothers, Dario and Luca. He packed up and moved across the world to set up the U.S. office, overseeing customer service and retail expansion.
“Dad knew each of our strengths from the beginning and gave us the opportunity to cultivate them,” he said. (Renzo Rossetti stepped down in the late 1990s and handed the business over to his sons.)
“Now it’s the turn of our children, if they decide to join, as long as they are ready to work hard,” he said, adding that it’s also important to cultivate talent from outside the family. “Over the years, we have built a structure with good managers so the company can go ahead even without the family,” he explained.
Designer Alberto Guardiani agreed, noting that while his namesake brand thrives with the support of his wife, Rossella Beato, who serves as commercial director, and his three daughters — Guya, Serena and Rubina — he also leans on a strong outside management team to help guide the business.
“We don’t take decisions only from among family members — we have experienced managers to plot a strong and efficient strategy,” Guardiani said.
Enrico Moretti Polegato’s story differs slightly. In 2009, the son of Geox founder Mario Polegato joined Geox, but when his father acquired Diadora, the storied Italian high-performance sportswear company, it was the perfect opportunity for him to turn it around on his own.
“My father gave me carte blanche to build my team and my strategy,” said Polegato. “Sure, we often compare notes, and he gives precious advice from his vantage point, but this is my challenge.” Consolidated sales are up from 80 million euros in 2011 to 114 million in 2014 (from about $90 million to $128 million), with the workforce increasing from 98 people to 176 over the same period. In its heyday, Diadora was a favorite of tennis ace Bjorn Borg, Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and soccer star Roberto Baggio.
Cesare Paciotti, owner of his namesake brand, said he and his sister Paola “discussed the generation issue at length because they didn’t want their children to feel pressure.”
In the end, Paola’s sons, Marco and Massimo, joined the business a decade ago as sales director and legal director, respectively. Paciotti’s children, both in their early 20s, are following suit: Ludovica is the creative mind behind the Cesare Paciotti women’s line, while Giuseppe is finishing his studies in finance and economics in Milan.
Giuseppe Zanotti, who founded his namesake company in 1994, said he’s determined not to dictate his children’s career paths. “It is typically Italian to transmit our know-how to our children, but then it obviously depends on whether or not they want to take on the sacrifice of running a company and all it entails,” he explained. His two young sons, Lorenzo and Riccardo, are considering making a foray into the business.
“For a company like ours that dresses celebrities and produces everything in-house, every step of the process is fundamental — you have to have a complete vision for everything,” Zanotti said. “If they feel ready, if they feel the passion, then I will be their main sponsor.”
In the end, following in the footsteps of a predecessor is both a gift and a challenge. As James Ferragamo put it, “My late grandfather dreamed of dressing his clients from head to toe, and that’s what we have done and will continue to do.”
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in print 08/24/15]