The helmsman at Savino Del Bene
«I was a believer in the communist utopia. So I created our logistics empire»
The command room is a streamlined office, designed to serve the management of a true empire: an international transportation empire that really does go everywhere. The nerve centre of the Savino Del Bene company is located in Scandicci, a stone’s throw from the exit of the dual highway for Livorno. But the window of the room occupied by Paolo Nocentini, the man who has run the company since 1977, looks out over the world. It is no coincidence that displayed prominently behind him, in addition to a photo with his oldest friends, is an atlas, on a reading stand. A reminder that from that room, the Florence-based group (whose first offices in the early 1900s were in Via Porta Rossa, then in Via delle Terme until 1985) has established itself as a logistics player on a par with the top multinationals – DHL, K&N, Schenker or the Asian companies – and ranks as a global giant in freight forwarding. At the age of 77, Nocentini has no intention of standing down. Far from it.
«This is my old communist spirit coming to the fore. It’s a question of a sense of responsibility to the people who have worked hard to make this company ever more solid,” he explains. “A company that can’t simply be the heritage of its owner, but has to be a resource for the people who work here and for the local community, be it in Italy or abroad. And I think that in any case Savino Del Bene is a resource for the country.»
An observation not to be underestimated, especially when it comes from a captain of industry who has never hidden his communist roots. «As a young man I was a paid-up member of the party,” he confirms, “and I’ve read all the Marxist classics, even though I didn’t get very far with ‘Das Kapital’ (he smiles, ed.). I believed in the communist utopia, in disagreement with my father, but even if that utopia has not come about it has helped me in everything I’ve done.» This is the basis of his respect for the workers. It’s not easy to hear this from someone who started at the switchboard and worked his way up through the organisation until he took over the reins of the company, with the solid support of four friends.
«I’ve been in this company for 61 years,” Nocentini continues, “and I know all its strengths and its weaknesses, and I work to improve both. The changes have been considerable and I certainly am not the same person I was then. While I haven’t made huge mistakes, I have become less intransigent over the years. People change during their lifetime, they change physically, and their software changes too: from being a communist I have become a progressive liberal. You have to keep up with the times, just as our activities have had to change significantly to keep up with the times.»
These changes certainly haven’t stopped the company from achieving levels of real excellence. A couple of figures reflect the dimensions achieved by Savino Del Bene. The group closed 2017 with a 23% increase in its revenues (more than 1.5 billion euro), and has over 4,000 employees, including 1,300 Italian workers, in its 270 offices located around the world.
«As I said,” he adds, “everything has changed. When I started, I used to walk to work, given that I lived in Florence. And the office were in the city centre. Today technology enables us to address every market with solutions combining a variety of different transport systems.» In the early months of 2018, four more operating offices were opened in the USA, in Cincinnati, Phoenix, Nashville and Philadelphia, and a leading freight forwarding company was acquired in Kansas City. This brings the total of American sites to 19, indicating that the group still continues to expand and has its sights trained increasingly on the Americas. The temptation to venture on to the stock market again is still there, but after the experiences of 2013-2014 it has been put on hold. But the spirit of growth is a policy of small steps, after the economic efforts of 2015, following the death of the company’s historic owner, Silvano Brandani, who had a 50 per cent shareholding. With Brandani’s death, Nocentini became the majority shareholder, supported in this transaction by the colossus Msc, with its 23% stake.
What are his passions? Volleyball and his car. The passion for volleyball has developed over the years and he dreams of Scandicci regaining the women’s title it has not held since 1973, when the Valdagna team won three consecutive trophies. His second passion is focused entirely on a Tesla: an all-electric American car where technology is key. No, he has never liked “super vehicles”, because it is always better to be than to appear. Otherwise what sort of communist would he be. Yet the story of Paolo Nocentini is the story of an entrepreneur who has achieved his success by following his dream, as they would say in the States. Or utopias, says the 16-year-old switchboard operator who became CEO in 1977 and then chairman of a global company with an imperative: «Never sell out to a foreign group, if I should realise I no longer had the strength to go on.»
He doesn’t say so, to avoid looking like a typical Italian father, but it is clear he would like his son to take over from him, because he would know what lies behind the success of the Savino Del Bene company.