Massimo Ferragamo, how did you become the “American Ferragamo?”
The best things in life happen by chance. Back when I was a humble student, I had a conversation with the chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue who was visiting Florence. He suggested I do the executive training programme at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, which at the time was Ferragamo’s biggest client. I had lived twenty-three years in Florence, and so I found this to be an interesting prospect. I asked my mother if I could interrupt my university studies to do the six-month course. She said I could as long as I returned to Florence to graduate.
So what happened?
I did my six months, and I fell in love with New York and the way of working in the United States. They were opening our direct offices in New York in that same period so I mustered up the courage to call my mother and my older brother Ferruccio and tell them that I didn’t want to come back to finish my law degree. I added that I would happily do a three-year work experience in our offices. On one hand, they were sorry that I didn’t want to finish my studies, but on the other hand, they were happy that I wanted to be part of the family business, which is something I hadn’t thought about doing before.
How did it go?
Those three years became thirty-three years.
Have you become American?
No, absolutely not. You can’t change who you are, especially if you were born in Italy. However, I do appreciate America and its positive qualities very much.
What is it like to live between two continents?
The only negative thing is the logistics because you are always on an airplane. But nobody can appreciate the United States more than a European – perhaps even more than an American can. Nothing is too big in the United States and nothing is impossible. They are always ready to listen if you have a good idea, and then there’s a way of doing things that is incredibly efficient. In Italy it’s very different.
Is it a matter of discipline?
Yes, and then there is that Anglo-Saxon training, or in other words, that natural inherent ability to avoid bureaucracy.
What does the American market represent for Ferragamo?
Historically it has always been the most relevant market. My father Salvatore Ferragamo started by opening his first boutique in Hollywood. He started out in the United States. Today the American market represents 23% of what we do in the world, and we have forty-eight boutiques in the United States.
Are shoes always your number-one product?
Yes. Let’s say leather, men’s and women’s shoes, bags, small leather goods like belts, and wallets, etc.
Is everything made in Italy?
It is 110% made in either Tuscany or southern Italy!
Do you remember your father Salvatore Ferragamo?
Unfortunately no. I wasn’t even three years old when he died and therefore my mother was both a mother and father to me and my older brother Ferruccio.
All six of your siblings has a role in the company if I’m not mistaken.
Yes. Each of us wanted to help my mother who took over in the company after my father died in 1960.
Since then you have grown a lot. Today Ferragamo is listed on the stock market. Why did you decide to go that route?
Yes, we’ve been listed on the stock exchange for three years, and this was a decision we made to give continuity and solidity to the company as well as discipline. We are even more disciplined than we were before.
Is the Ferragamo name well known in the United States?
Yes, because we’ve been around a long time. The fact that we have been around for a long time is a guarantee of the tradition and a solid base, but you need to be constantly updating things and looking to the future because you need to get back in the game every single day.
How are things in the luxury industry during times of economic crisis?
I have been in the United States for thirty-three years, and I’ve lived through at least three serious recessions. Aside from the one in 2008 that had negative repercussions for just about everyone, we have never really felt the impact. Even with the recession of 2008, we started to grow in 2009 more than before. If I had to sum things up in a sentence, I’d say that, “Luxury companies are the last to feel economic crises and the first to bounce back.”
Why is that?
When you make products that have intrinsic value and the right price/quality ratio, a product that is marketed to a client that knows he or she can count on that product, and most importantly, there can’t be a crisis for accessories because they are absolutely necessary.
What about fashion?
Fashion may be the industry that feels the crisis the most.
Do you think the drop in price of petroleum will influence your sales?
When it comes to petroleum, I’m not a financial expert and so I can’t say. But I can say that a strong dollar is something fundamental for a European company, and if people have more money in their pockets because petroleum costs less, then it is certainly a positive thing.
But you have other businesses in Italy. You make wine and have a resort?
Yes. Years ago I bought “Castiglion del Bosco,” a historic producer of Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most famous and prestigious wines. I renovated it and turned it into a luxury resort. We have ten rustic farmhouses, twenty-three suites, two restaurants, a spa, and a gorgeous golf course that is the only private golf course in Italy, being also set within a UNESCO world heritage site. At the beginning of the year, we signed a management agreement with Rosewood Hotels and Resorts to manage the hospitality part. We are usually booked solid during the summer. The winemaking part is my passion, and today we are the fifth largest producer of Brunello. Fortunately that side of things is going very well also.
The winery and the resort are yours?
Yes. These are my things that reflect my passion for the countryside and real estate projects. Real-estate endeavours are second nature in my family.
The Ferragamo family also has hotels, doesn’t it?
Yes. There’s Lungarno Alberghi, which has beautiful hotels that are very central, next to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and a small hotel in Rome in Via Condotti. We like this business, and we hope to expand more into it. My brother Leonardo manages it.
What does your job entail?
I hope to serve as a watchful eye for my family and our interests in the United States. For the last few years, I’ve had my own business activities, which have taken up a lot of my time. Today I have less of an operational role in the company as we are now listed on the stock market, and the group has a more managerial structure.
You are also a director of Yum! Brands, which is a group that has Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. How did you get involved in that?
It is something that came about by chance. I was asked by the company chairman Andy Pearson who had worked with my mother and I on a case study of Ferragamo for Harvard University. When he was asked in 1997 to manage the spin-off of these companies from PepsiCo, he asked if I wanted to be part of the Board. I felt honoured, and all of the people are of the highest level.
What have you learned after thirty years in the United States?
I have learned a great deal, especially in terms of the efficient and practical way of working. I am amazed by this country because it can teach anyone who comes here how to adapt to the system. Here there’s a system, and whoever comes here has to adapt, or is better off returning home.
Is it a difficult country?
Yes. You need to work and produce. Despite all of the difficulties, there is only 4% unemployment here.
Is Florence your city?
I miss it, but fortunately, I go quite often. I have a house there, a lot of friends, and my heart always beats for Florence and the Fiorentina team!
What about your children?
I have two sons, and they feel Italian and speak Italian, but they were born and have been raised in America. When one of my sons was eight years old, he told me that he feels Italian during the World Cup for football, but he feels American in a war.
What differences do you pick up on living between New York and Florence?
The difference is that in Florence and in Tuscany, life is on a more human scale. You can walk around easily, there are small trattorias, and you experience the life of the city more.
What about family?
Family is incredibly important to me. I have been married to Chiara for twenty years, and she was immediately taken with New York the same way I was. Naturally, extended family is also important. I can sum it up with one example. My mother Wanda Ferragamo called me yesterday from her office in Florence – where at ninety-three years of age she goes daily – because she was worried. She had heard on the news how cold it was in New York, and she wanted to make sure I was bundled up.
We are very, very close in my family thanks to my mother who has always preached and practiced fairness without favourites for all of us. This is the basis for the strong bond that there is among we siblings. Furthermore, we’ve established a similar set of very precise rules for future generations. A limited number of people who can enter into the company with specific credentials to gain access.
What’s in the Ferragamo DNA?
Being really in touch with reality. Honesty in all areas in terms of what you do; and the products need to be absolutely honest. A desire for innovation and respect for people.
February 4th, 2015
Images by kind permission of Ferragamo or Castiglion del Bosco.