On the road in Italy

Italy

What a major disappointment visiting companies in Italy and Iím not sure if the Italian postal system is the culprit. Iíd say about 90% of the companies visited, said they never received my advance material sent 4-6 weeks ahead of my arrival. Now Iíve heard stories about Italyís sloppy postal service but, is it all their fault or it is sloppy handling by the companies visited? And so much for Italyís reputation for being in love with bicycles. I thought my arriving via bicycle in this bicycle worshipping country would in itself, open doors for me but it didnít. Why is Italian ice cream so much better?

Turin

The last stories filed had me in Barcelona, Spain. How did I arrive in Turin, a city of one million people located in the northern part of Italy? Via the southern coast of France which took me along the beautiful French Riviera and the Principality of Monaco. I passed through Marseille, Franceís third largest city after Paris and Lyon, yet, itís home to zero companies to visit. Cannes and Nice are nice but, honors for most beautiful locale goes to Monte-Carlo. Those monster-size yachts inhabiting its harbors are very impressive. I made note of street signs I hadnít seen since riding through Southampton, New York (Long Island). The signs pointed out it was illegal to wear bathing attire away from the beach area.

About 35,000 people live in The Principality of Monaco. I spent a night in The Hermitage, a super deluxe hotel in Monte-Carlo a stoneís through away from that fancy casino which gained notoriety in one of those James Bond flicks. Who owns the casino, hotel, as well as several other deluxe high-end hotels, casinos, restaurants, sports clubs, retail centers and just about anything else worth owning in Monte-Carlo? The Societe des Bain de Mer. According to Mireille Rebaudo-Martini, press director for SBM, the company had over $200 million in revenues last year. Who owns SBM? The Principality of Monaco (Prince Ranier) owns 60% and private investors the rest. Come to think of it, the Prince runs a tight ship: The streets and sidewalks are void of trash, graffiti is nonexistent, nary a homeless person is spotted and only one fast-food establishment (McDonaldís) has managed to gain a toehold with its one outlet.

Fiat SpA

Headquarters for Fiat, Italyís second largest company with over $40 billion in revenue, are in two similar-looking nine-story structures standing side by side in an area primarily filled with residential apartments. Turinís central railway station lies several blocks away. A public street divides the two buildings but a skywalk five floors up connects the two. No loud neon signs found here, with small discreet plaques bearing the word "Fiat" located just outside the entrance to each building. The two buildings look to have been built in the 1970ís and were probably originally apartments due to their looking remarkably similar to an apartment complex next door.

Two receptionists sit in booths behind glass-enclosed counters similar to what banks use. Another booth sits vacant, making me wonder if thereíre three receptionists on duty during prime hours. As it is, Iím the only one in the lobby area so I guess 10 am isnít prime visiting hours. I count four security guards, two near each side door leading into offices.

Birgit Hansen, a secretary, whoís German but speaks English, gets on the phone with me and says to check back in the afternoon after she has had time to track down where my letter ended up.

Itís three in the afternoon and Iím back. While waiting an hour in the lobby I notice thereís not one single picture, model or display of a car in the place. Hmm, makes one wonder if theyíre not proud of their products. Ten white sofa chairs, no plants, paintings or a single piece of reading material except for the March 1996 issue of a magazine called "illustrato". The only reason itís probably around is because thereís an article on Giovanni Agnelli, Chairman of Fiat.

Birgit finally comes out to the lobby and says Cesare Romiti, Managing Director, had received my advance material but, "nothing had been done with it". "What does that mean?" I ask. Birgit says Iím out of luck. She checked with public relations and was told no one was available because it had to be someone "who spoke perfect English and knew about the headquarters building".

Boy, Iíd go to Turinís largest newspaper and the third largest in Italy, La Stampa and tell them about my lackluster reception, but the newspaper is owned by Fiat.

Instituto Bancario San Paulo de Torino Spa

Piazza San Carlo, probably the most prestigious business address and one of the most beautiful plazas in Turin, houses the head offices of Instituto Bancario San Paulo de Torino SpAóItalyís largest bank with over $14 billion in revenues. This is an OLD bank its roots go back to 1563 where it originally started out as a charity. The company has been on the site since the 1700ís and behind the beautiful long 17th century Baroque facade lies an ugly six-story building built in 1963 and home to 1,000 employees. During World War II, a former building on the site was severely damaged by a bombed dropped by the English. Though the company hadnít received my advance material, Luigi Ferrari and Laura Arduino from public relations answer questions and give me a warm reception. Iíve heard about the poor mail service in Italy and I hope this wonít be a continual problem. My friend Nancy sends out the advance material (consisting of a postcard explaining my project and several news write-ups Iíve had in major newspaperófor credibility purposes) from Seattle about a month before I anticipate arriving at a company.

Smoking is permitted anywhere in the place and normal working hours are from 8:30 am to 5 PM with a lunch break from 1:15 to 2:15. With a 1,000 people working here Iím surprised to learn thereís no cafeteria. Select senior management get dibs on the half-dozen parking spots in the enclosed courtyard.

Things are looking pretty boring as Ferrari leads me from his no-frills, dull-looking 1960ís office area to the executive section, located on the second floor in the front of the building. Oh-oh, things are looking up as we pass the secured door leading into the big-shots wing; the floor instantly turns into marble and the wood paneling a rich dark brown. Lining the walls are part of the companyís collection of 17th and 18th century Italian and Flemish Old Masters. Off to one side and looking totally out of place sits a life-size, 18th century Chinese wooden sculpture of a fat Buddha sitting in the lotus position. I also spot a five-foot tall safe from 1810 sitting in a corner.

Walking into the boardroom the first words out of my mouth are; "Wow, this is gorgeous" Done in typical 17th century Baroque grandeur the large room is lined with mirrors whoís edges are trimmed in gold leaf. The colorful yellow velour chairs, two large chandeliers and parquet floor gives the room an elegant yet flashy feel to it. A French 18th century clocks sits on one mantel and on another sits an authentic 1st century bronze bust of a severed head of a Roman emperor. I donít get a peek into the chairmanís or managing directorís offices because both doors are closed, which meansódonít disturb them.

Olivetti & Co. SpA

I knew trekking the 30 miles from Turin to Ivrea (population 26,000) to see computer maker Olivetti was an iffy proposition because their annual meeting is tomorrow and itís always a bad time to show up due to everyone being busy with preparations. I also read in the papers where Olivetti was to announce losses of over $1 billion in 1995. But, Iím an eternal optimist and you donít know how youíll get received unless you show up.

This is unbelievable. About a mile from downtown Ivrea sits this huge Y-shaped seven-story building with the 1970ís look to it and adjacent lies another huge six-story red brick add-on. There must be several thousand employees working here. But, as I make a ride around the perimeter of the complexóthereís not one single Olivetti sign or plaque on the buildings or near the complex entrances identifying the place. In a small town like this I guess everyone KNOWS whoís here.

Aw shucks, Lorella Tonelli, secretary to CEO Carlo Benedetti, steps into the lobby and says they hadnít received my advance material. She tries several people but finds everyoneís too busy to meet with me since the annual meeting is tomorrow. Tonelli wins points in my book for coming down to meet me in person and for making a serious effort to find someone to see me. She also has one of the neatest accents Iíve encountered. Tonelli lived in Australia for several years and has this wonderful combination English/Australian/Italian accent.

Before leaving I peer over the counter to check the brand of computer the receptionist is using. Yep, itís an Olivetti. I also notice the covered bike racks in the parking lot as I ride off.

Italcementi SpA

Milan is my biggest stop in Italy and it turned out to be a disaster. Thereís a furniture convention in town and itís Milanís biggest convention of the year. Hotels in the city and suburbs are booked solid, which means I arrive and leave town the same day. Iíll attempt to come back through Milan in several weeks after heading down to Rome and Naples. Bergamo (population 200,000) lies about 40 miles east of Milan and about a mile from city center I find the four-story headquarters of cement maker Italcementi.

Things arenít looking good for me as I spend five minutes at the front gate trying to explain to the three security guards (who donít speak English) what Iím doing here. As luck would have it Sergio Crippa, director public relations, had just pulled in with his car and was walking by us to his office. He agrees to meet with me even though he says they never received my advance material (ugh!! I Ďm really starting to hate the Italian postal service).

Nothing of interest to report here. We end up in a tiny, bare bones meeting room near the guardhouse where he answers my questions. Thatís the extent of my visit. Seeing any of the offices/boardroom is out of the question because "it just isnít done". Built in the 1950ís, over 800 employees work here. Italcementi, founded in 1864, and Europeís biggest cement maker, doesnít have a cafeteriaóonly vending machines. Normal working hours are 8:30 am to 12:30 and from 2:30 PM to 5:30 PM. Iím finding almost all stores and most businesses in Italy seem to shut down for lunch for two hours anywhere from 12:30 to 4:pm.

Banca Popolare Di Bergamo

Considered the center of downtown Bergamo, historic and beautiful Piazza Vittorio Veneto houses Banca Popolare Di Bergamo, Italyís 17th largest bank (in terms of assets). The 7-story headquarters built in 1910 doesnít look very big but, with several inter-connected building in the rear, itís the workplace for 800 employees.

Turns out the bank hadnít received my advance material but that doesnít keep Cesare Combi, head of corporate communications, from giving me a warm welcome and extensive tour of this deceivingly historic site. Deceiving because on this site in the 1300ís was a monastery. Tucked behind the main building lies the cloister of the monasteryócomplete with original frescoes on the walls! Not on the tourist trail maps, a locked iron see-through gate allows passerbyís to look into the courtyard and marvel at the hidden treasure.

Well, hereís another Italian company with a slew of employees (over 800) on site and yet there isnít a company cafeteriaóonly vending machines. On another note; American banking terminology seems to have found its way over here with Combi describing Banca Popolare as a "super-regional bank".

General Manager Giorgio Frigeriís title is equivalent to CEO in the USA. His second floor middle office overlooking the square contains a computer (heís 55 years old), two real plants and several family photos on his desk .

The boardroom along with its wood parquet floor, is a real beaut. A long oval-shaped table with the middle cut out centers the room, which is enhanced by a 35-foot high ceiling. In the cutout center of the table stand a row of real plants in planters. On the sides of the boardroom table are woodcarvings of 18 old coins used centuries ago in the Bergamo area. Over four false doors are marble biblical carvings of kids, which signify the four seasons. A giant 18th century chandelier hangs over the boardroom table. Outside the boardroom portraits of past presidents line the walls. The bank was founded in 1869.

On the road in Florence

If one overlooks the lousy, jam-packed, narrow cobblestone streets and the constant clogging of sidewalks by tour groups, Florence isnít so bad. About 500,000 people live here.

GIM SpA

Itís late Friday afternoon and making my way down a narrow street about a mile from Florenceís city center I find Borgo Pinti 97/99. Itís headquarters for GIM SpA, the worldís largest producer of flat-rolled products (copper/brass) with 1994 revenues of 3,896 billion lire. The place looks to be a former house of some kind. Streets in Florence are narrow and, structures flush right up to the sidewalksómaking it tough to see how big or deep a property goes. Several guards sit behind a glass picture window controlling who comes in or out of the driveway. When I ride in on my bike the two guards run out to shoo me away-evidently thinking Iím a tourist. As with every company Iíve visited in Italy, the guards donít speak English. I finally get a man visiting the company to translate for me. Francesco Giubilei, public relations, ends up walking out to the guard gate to see what I want. I tell him my story and he says they never received my advance material. Never the less, Giubilei says to come back on Monday and heíll meet with me. As I ride off Giubilei motions me to stop. Why? "Make sure you have long pants---shorts arenít appropriate", he says. Jeez, I wish heíd give me some credit. Though I may ride up in my shorts, in Europe Iíve been consistent in donning on socks and either putting on my fancy Polo sweat-like pants over my shorts or changing into my cuffed dress slacks with belt. The darn security guards never gave me a chance to do either.

Monday afternoon and Iím waiting near the guard station again. I venture down the driveway to get a feel on how deep the property goes. Holy cow, inside thereís a huge park here! Itís got to be at least several acres. A fellow on a motor scooter waves as he passes me and itís Giubilei returning from lunch. Standing outside the building entrance I note the large sundial placed ON the building wall. It reads 2:30 P.M. and I look at my watchóyep, itís right on time. Also about eight feet high up on the side of the wall thereís a small plaque with Italian writing and I see the date 1966. "Is that when this place was built?", I ask. "No", say Giubilei, "thatís when we had the big flood in Florence and the plaque marks the high water spot."

Entering the three-story building I find out quickly how stupid my guess at the age of the place turns out to be. This home, or more correctly palace, was built in 1472. The insides are drop-dead gorgeous! Passing through a now enclosed courtyard one sees high-reliefs dating back to 1585 when Cardinal Alessandro dei Medici owned the house and grounds. The Cardinal became Pope in 1601 and died after only 26 days in office. Frescoes abound and thereís even an opulent chapel on the ground floor complete with ornately decorated cupola. The Chinese Room is paneled with precious Chinese wallpaper and matched by luxurious armchairs. The Red Room is lined in silk, woven with the initials and crests of Count Ugo della Gherardesca. The house went through several families over the next several centuries and was eventually acquired by GIM (Generale Industrie Metallurgiche) in 1939. Much restoration was done in 1942 and the palace AND grounds are listed as national historic properties. The three-hectare garden is the largest in Florence and Iíll bet 95% of the locals have no idea this huge green sanctuary exists behind the walls.

Around 180 employees work here. Thereís an airy cafeteria and one would think employees would love to have lunch on the grounds. No can do. Employees can stroll the grounds but, arenít allowed to partake of a meal on the grounds.

The ballroom, now the boardroom, is lined with marble and the ceiling must be 40 feet high. Sitting side by side and encased in protective hard plastic bubbles are two of the largest globes Iíve ever seen. Done in the 16th century, oneís an astrology globe and the other a geographic. Only six of these monster-size globes were made with the other four residing in the Vatican. I canít see CEO and Chairman Luigi Orlandoís office due to his not being here. After seeing the art treasures in the place I now realize the need for the high security. The company was founded in 1886.

La Fondiaria Assicurazioni S.P.A.

I show up at La Fondiaria, Italyís third largest insurance company, around 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon only to learn all insurance companies in Italy close at 2 p.m. on Fridays. Itís not a law but from what Iím told itís an industry tradition done year round.

Pier Luigi Berdondini, head of public relations, and Piera Chiti, also from public relations but acting more as a translator for Berdondini, answer my questions. Berdondini-whoís English isnít as bad as he thinks it is, says they havenít received my advance material.

Headquarters, a six-story A-shaped structure built in 1962 with a peach-colored facade, isnít a very exciting-looking building, but I love the name of the grand sounding street it sits on: Via Lorenzo il Magnifico.

Wow, before Berdondini starts to light up a cigarette he asks if I mind. I say I do and he actually refrains from lighting up. As in Spain, everyone in Italy seems to smoke up a storm and no one usually bothers to ask if you mind.

Almost 800 people employed here with normal hours of work from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a 45 minute lunch break (thereís a cafeteria). Straightforward boardroom with wood paneled walls. I canít see Chairman Alberto Pecciís second floor office because "heís in it". The company was founded in 1879.

Piaggio SpA

Piaggio was added to my list of companies to visit due to it being the worldís largest manufacturer of those pesky motor scooters. Itís one of those on and off rainy days as I make my way to Pontederea, a town roughly halfway between Florence and Pisa (the place where they have the problem with a leaning tower). It isnít hard finding the headquarters/factory complex because itís huge. Located across the downtown railroad tracks the complex must be a half-mile long.

Itís around lunchtime and hundreds of employees are passing in and out a guarded entrance gate. The young security guard doesnít speak English and in response to whatever I say he replies "it is not possible". As employees file past I finally find one who speaks English and have him translate to the guard. The guard goes into his little booth, makes a call and in a minute steps out and says, "it is not possible". "Why?" I ask. I have to flag another passerby to find out why. Turns out, the managing directorís secretary is out to lunch for an hour so I canít find who ended up with my advance material. It starts to rain so I take cover across the road in a shoddy tin-covered enclosure where employees riding motor scooters to work park. I notice quite a few arenít Piaggioís brands. Hmmm, I guess employees arenít too keen on the scooters they produce here.

I return in an hour only to encounter the same guard. He again says, "it is not possible" and again I have to corral a passerby to translate. The guard says I talked to two women in the office and was told Piaggio wasnít interested in meeting with me. Huh? this is sure out of left field. I havenít talked to anyone in the company because this idiot refuses to let me use a phone. Itís starting to drizzle/rain again and I refuse to go away. Another security guard walks up to me and says something in Italian. I donít know what he says but it must be something like "get lost" because he proceeds to close the big iron entrance gates in my face. Jeez, this is just like dealing with the drivers of their motor scooters. Since arriving in Italy, I found out quickly motor scooters are BIG in Italy and the drivers are the pits. Weaving in and out of traffic, constantly cutting in front of my bike these scooters are truly a menace.

I wasted a whole day making my way to Piaggio, endured rain and the rainy roads and wasted several hours standing outside the entrance. Iím sure not going to give up due to a jerk security guard. I head several blocks down the road to a pay phone. I call the company and after being transferred three times I talk to Enei Neptini from external relations. Yes he received my advance materials and no he hasnít time for me though he says heís very impressed with my endeavor. If I could come back NEXT week he could fit me in. Fat chance Iíll be back and itís even a fatter chance Iíll ever buy one of their products.

ROME

Rome is Italyís largest city. Youíve got your Roman ruins, over 400 churches, traffic clogged streets and of course, The Vatican

Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro SpA

Via Vittorio Veneto gets the call as the most prestigious street in Rome. Some of the cityís ritziest hotels reside on the street as well as the US embassy, which looks to be housed in a huge former palace or mansion. Next door to the embassy stands Banca Nazionale Del Lavoroís (BNL) not very impressive-looking four-story head office. In terms of revenues ($10.3 billion) itís Italyís third largest bank behind Instituto Banc San Paulo and Banca Commerciale Italiana.

Directed to another building on the backside I meet with Claudio Maria Cremona, external relations, who doesnít show much interest during my ten minute meeting but manages to smoke two cigarettes in that time (of course without asking if I mind). Founded in 1913, the Italian government still controls 85% of the voting shares. Cremona guessimates the building, which is home to 600 employees, was built around the time of the bankís founding. I canít see the boardroom or CEO Davide Croffís office "due to meetings".

IRI

Donít have to go far to visit Italyís largest company because itís right next door to Banca Nazionale Del Lavoroís on Via Veneto. Initially formed in 1933 to save the Italian banking system, IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale) has grown into a huge industrial conglomerate with over $45 billion in revenues and 300,000 employees. In 1992 the government converted IRI from a state agency to a limited company whose primary goal is privatization The last few years has seen IRI privatize or sell off several of its former businesses including Alfa Romeo, Cementir, Credit Italiano and Banca Commerciale Italiana. IRI still has its hands in a whole slew of businesses including telecommunications, shipbuilding, air transport (owns Alitalia-the national airline), shipping, aerospace & defense systems and financial services.

Though itís a prestigious address and the turn-of-the-century seven-story edifice has the look of being home to a big business, thereís a definite low-key approach by IRI. Thereís no company name on the outside and the only way you know youíre in the right place is by the rug with the companyís name on it when entering the building. Evidently the original occupier of the place was an insurance company because itís name still sits embedded above the entrance.

Boy, they donít have to worry about visitors running off with their visitors badges here: you exchange your passport for a badge. Though they hadnít received my advance material that doesnít stop Enrico Pedemonte, manager for North America, Asia International affairs department, from giving me a warm welcome and an extensive tour. How extensive? After visiting the cafeteria on the top floor we step onto the balcony and up to the buildingís roof. Here Pedemonte and a security guard point out city landmarks.

Built in 1928 (by an insurance company as I had already deduced) over 600 employees work here. Thereís an extensive company art collection scattered about the building and itís primarily Italian artists. Quite a mixture with 15th century and modern works mixed about. The boardroom seats 24 with the long table being a blend of wood and leather. The red leather chairs in the 120-seat auditorium are quite comfy. With General Manager Enrico Micheli (CEO) working in his second floor office I only get to look at his closed door while walking by.

Banca di Roma SpA

I ride 10 miles from downtown to EUR to visit Banca di Romaís office only to be told theyíre downtown. Whatís EUR you ask? Benito Mussilino had this grand complex of white marbled state office edifices built out here in the 1930ís. Later, the area also became home to many international companies. What does this place look like in the 1990ís? A collection of outdated buildings. The white marbled buildings are rundown and the various office buildings, most of which look to have been built in the 1950ís and 1960ís, are worn and way past their prime. The extensive well-kept grounds surrounding Banca di Romaís fortress-like building keeps it looking sharp.

Riding back to downtown Rome I make my way to a dead end side street. Here in a four-story brownstone with only a tiny plaque out front identifying the place, I find the bankís head office. None of the three security guards sitting behind a large plate glass window speak English. I end up making three visits over two days. The third visit finds Francesa Atango, secretary to General Manager Cesare Geronzi, stepping out to the lobby with an annual report and saying she hopes this will take care of my needs. Atango says I picked a bad day to show up because thereís a board meeting today.

Instituto per Opere Religiose

The Roman Catholic church has been around for a long, long time. Over the years the church has built up quite a fortune. I thought it would be fun to visit Instituto per Opere Religiose, the churchís bank plus, I found out they use several Bloomberg terminals. The Vatican, the worldís smallest country, occupies about a square mile of land directly behind the massive and spectacular St. Peterís cathedral. Entering the premises or country requires passing muster with the Swiss guards, whoíve been protecting the Pope for hundreds (thousands?) of years. Iím directed to a small spartanly furnished visitor office but not before being told I canít enter the premises in my shorts. Wow, you canít wear shorts in this country and, women have to wear skirts down to the knees.

Itís my turn in the visitor center to be helped but you wouldnít know it. If thereís one thing that separates Italians from any other country Iíve visited thus far is this: Italians WILL NOT stand in line. Name it, a bank, post office or a McDonaldís and nary an Italian will stand behind you waiting their turn. They stand to either side of you. Youíre at a bank tellerís window trying to conduct business and theyíll be people just plan at your elbows. Being a typical American who likes to have "his space", it drives me up the wall. Anyway, Iím next to be waited on at The Vatican reception area and this tiny old Italian man, easily in his 70ís, whoís suppose to be BEHIND me is standing next to me touching me with his elbows. Though he speaks only Italian I try to tell him to stand behind me but of course to no avail. I end up letting this pushy man go ahead of me. This Italian not- standing-in-a-line syndrome is not limited to young or old males. Females of all ages are just as guilty.

I addressed my advance material to Angelo Caloia-president, Instituto per Opere Religiose (IOR). In the reception area Iím sent to a phone and connected to someone who says Caloia is in Milan for a week or so. "Well, can you connect me to his secretary or assistant?" I ask. "He doesnít have one", is the answer. The man runs this big bank and has no assistants or secretaries? I keep asking the person on the phone to connect me to someone who could help me but the guy isnít interested in helping out. His first name is Pino but refuses to tell me his last name. When I ask him his job title he answers "receptionist".

Benetton Group SpA

Making my way back up to northern Italy via the East Coast I pass through Venice. I had heard about Venice being a collection of several hundred islands and smart guy me figures itíll be no problem going from one to another via connecting bridges. I find out very quickly it ainít so. An island may be a block long then they have these pedestrian bridges one walks over to the next island. Well, these little bridges arenít flat. They are like upside down letter "U"s because boats (including gondolas) have to pass through all the canals. So? Well, if youíve never seen my bike itís looks like a tank and weighs a ton. The bridges have no ramps. Just steps, lots and lots of up and down steps. After lugging my bike over the third bridge I said forget it, got smart and left my trusty steed in the hotel room. I should have realized it was foolish because after I crossed the second bridge I was passed by a tour group and overheard the tour guide tell the group "see his bicycle, itís very unusual. You wonít find bikes in Venice because it isnít feasible".

Thirty miles northwest of Venice lies Treviso, a thriving place of 30,000 residents. Riding several miles north of town brings me to the village of Ponzano Veneto, home to Benetton. Besides clothing, the company has diversified into the sports equipment world buying companies making skiing and roller blading products. This should be a fun visit and I imagine Iíll be well received. Why? Well, why not? Iím a biker and biking is BIG in Italy plus, Benetton likes to do all those controversial ads which shows it as a concerned, sensitive company wanting to make the world one big happy family with no color or race barriers.

Several signs along the village streets lead me to the companyís entrance. A guard sits in a small building screening visitors and from the street one canít see any buildings on the property because theyíre evidently set way back. The guard doesnít speak English but I eventually get across to him I want to talk to the secretary to Gilberto Benetton, the Managing Director. I get his secretary on the line and she says they never received my advance material. I mention sending the advance material over six weeks ago and addressed it to A. Palmeri, who I had down as the managing director. She says Palmeriís been long gone and if it was addressed to him it was probably tossed or forwarded to wherever he is now. "Well, Iíve come halfway around the world to visit your company would someone have a few minutes to meet with me?" I ask. "No, you have to come back tomorrow when the public relations director is here and see if she has time". she answers. "But, I leave town right after visiting you today. Itís a one shot deal for me. Iíve read stories about youíre headquarters and itís suppose to be beautiful". "It is beautiful, but Iím sorry I canít help you" she replies. Iím obviously disappointed but ask if I could have an annual report. She says Iíd have to get that through public relations and thereís nobody there today. Jeez, talk about uncaring and passing the buck.

Hopping on my bike I ride around the perimeter of the fenced-in grounds, checking if any buildings are visible. I spot what looks to be warehouse and a long complex of one-story buildings the later all having copper/purple colored roofs. An old church or monastery and its five-foot tall brick fence backs up to the property at the corner of a stop and go light intersection. Hey wait a minute, thatís not a church/monastery , itís the 17th century villa, which houses the executives! Over the years Iíve read several articles on Benetton and mention is always made of their head office being a 17th century villa. The three-story square-shaped white building with brown trim and red tile roof has fancy wrought iron gates out front. I assumed the villa was hidden way back from the street in the middle of the grounds somewhere. But nope, here it is only a few feet from a public street and a busy intersection. Hmm, I get my binoculars and take a closer look. Yep, itís definitely the villa. This is odd. Just two days earlier I read an article on Benetton Group in The European, a weekly paper, and mention was made of Luciano Benetton, the 60-year old president and founder, surviving an attempted kidnapping in the 1980ís and is heavily guarded included being chauffeured around in an armor-plated car. Actually one doesnít have to go through the guarded entrance to the right of the villa to get on the property because itís accessible from walking around the wrought iron gates in front. Whatís the view from the top floor? Right across the street lies farmland and grape vineyards.

On the Road in Milan

If you recall I came through Milan a month ago and had to leave the same day due to a huge furniture convention hogging all the rooms in town. Itís pretty much the same situation again as I only have two days to visit companies due to a variety of conventions, conferences and tourists having the city book up solid. As in most cities in Italy the downtown has cobblestone streets but here in Milan itís even worse because the cobblestones are more like slabs each measuring three feet by three feet. This causes my tires to get caught in the spaces between the slabs as my bike and I bumpily traverse Milan. There arenít any tall buildings here, but several near the central train station located several miles from the downtown core are over a dozen stories tall. However, they all look to have been built in the 1950ís or 1960ís.

Banca Commerciale Italiana

The first company I visit in Milan, Banca Commerciale Italiana, Italyís second largest bank with over $10 billion in revenues, calls home an impressive-looking three-story, granite-clad, turn-of-the-century building in Piazza Della Scala. Iím expecting a great reception because I know they have several Bloomberg terminals. Matter of fact, Angelo Giangregorio from the bankís equities department messaged me months ago on the Bloomberg asking when Iíll be coming to Milan and if his bank was on my list to visit.

Egads, I count five security guards as I enter the place. None speak English. Iím handed a phone and talk to an executive secretary, who, says they never received my advance material. This canít be. The letter was sent over TWO months ago. I mean I heard the mail was sloppy and slow in Italy but this is ridiculous. Not getting any help from the secretary I ask to see Giangregorio, whoís located in another building around the corner. Meeting with Giangregorio I tell him about my dismal reception here and ask if he could call around and see if maybe corporate communications has my letter. I feel embarrassed asking him to help me especially after he ends up on the phone for the next half-hour talking to a variety of people about my situation. The end result? Giangregorio informs me the bank isnít interested in participating. Giangregorio regularly reads my stories and is disappointed with the bankís decision. He wonders what Iíll say in my story. I tell him, "hey, Iíve been doing this for a long time and I try not to take it personally."

Mediobanca SpA

Around the corner from Banca Commerciale Italiana and behind the opera house in an unmarked and nameless three-story building are the head offices for Mediobanca. An recent article in The Economist magazine describes Mediobanca as a "shadowy merchant bank" Evidently Mediobanca has its fingers in most of Italyís biggest companies and has mucho power.

The building has a small courtyard and I count a half dozen cars parked inside. The two guards donít speak English but I mention the name Vincenzo Maranghi. Heís the managing director. Iím directed through the courtyard and up to a second floor waiting room. Carmela Magnani, secretary to Maranghi, steps in the room and says she recalls the letter but her boss never did anything with it which, means they arenít interested. I tell her Iím disappointed and ask for an annual report. I get the annual report and turning to leave I ask if she knows the age of the building. "From the 1200ís" she replies.

Montedison SpA

Montedison, a conglomerate with revenues of over $14 billion and profit in 1995 of $683 million, has its hand in a variety of businesses including insurance, concrete, engineering, art restoration, food products, newspaper publishing, racecource management, animal feeds and plastics. More than 70% of Montedison sales come from outside Italy. Montedison owns American Maize and Central Soya in the USA. Through its various subsidiaries Montedison is the worldís largest manufacturer of polypropylene, refined lecithin and modified soy proteins. Also the largest manufacturer of starch & derivatives in Europe, largest producer of concrete in Italy, largest producer of olive oil in Spain, second largest producer of sugar in the EU, the largest private supplier of electricity in Italy and, itís Fondiaria insurance subsidiary is the second largest insurance company in Italy. The last bit of information rankles me because I visited Fondiariaís offices in Florence and they never mentioned being a subsidiary. The companyís name is derived from the merger of Montecatini, (chemicals) and Edison (electricity). Mont & Edison.

Head offices for Montedison are in a grand-looking 100-year old five-story building in downtown Milan. Entry requires pulling open the massive black ornate wrought iron doors. Part of the wrought iron decorations on each doors includes the letter "Eí. Before Montecatini and Edison merged, this was Edisonís headquarters. Before Edison this was a military hospital for the French. Donít ask me why the French had a hospital here in Milan, but thatís what Paolo Aceto from Corporate Communication tells me as we wander around.

About 375 employees work here. Nothing fancy about the decor or furnishings even in the executive offices. Thereís a marble fountain down one of the main corridors, which isnít used anymore but goes back to the buildingís hospital days. The 230-seat auditorium is unusual in that scattered around the room are busts of 12 Roman emperors. Aceto says you can always spot a Roman emperor because they were the only ones allowed to have hair curled on their forehead. Hmm, thinking back to the movie Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, thatís true.

Outside the boardroom hang portraits of eight past company presidents. The boardroom itself isnít much to brag about with the long table being oval-shaped and three chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. All in all, pretty functional, no-frills offices for one of Italyís biggest companies.

Parmalat Finanziaria

Iím in downtown Milan outside a 14-story office/apartment complex. It looks like it was built in the 1950ís and boy is it an ugly-looking rundown structure. Iím here to visit Parmalat Finanziaria, the holding company for Parmalat SpA-which besides food processing theyíre the worldís largest brand of UHT milk. For those of you unfamiliar with UHT, itís the milk packaged in cartons, which doesnít have to be refrigerated. Itís not big in the USA but over in Europe UHT milk is popular and big business.

Stepping into the shabby elevator I press the 3rd floor button and find out the buttons donít light up when pressed. Jeez, I have visions of getting stuck. When I do step off the elevator I find a closed door and a speaker box with buzzer. No product display cases, nothing-except for a small plaque on the door saying Parmalat Finanziaria. I buzz the buzzer and am let in probably due to the person not speaking English and not having a clue as to what I said over the speaker box. Boy, looking around I note the interior looks just as shabby as the exterior. Several people approach me and I explain what Iím doing. "Mr. Tanzi and the other executives all work out of the Parma offices", one of them says. "How far is Parma from here", I ask. "Itís about 60 miles south of Milan", is the reply. Oh great, I must of passed near there on my way down to Florence.

Parmalat was founded in 1961 and Chairman & managing director Calisto Tanzi and family control 50.34% of the company. Revenues for the first half of 1995 were 2,043 billion lira.

Giorgio Armani

I donít know why I bother visiting clothes companies because I usually always get lousy receptions. Ralph Lauren (New York) and Calvin Klein (New York) gave me the "get lost" treatment and ditto for Ann Taylor (New York), The Gap (San Francisco) and The Limited (Columbus). Though I do recall having great visits at Esprit (San Francisco) and Eddie Bauer (Seattle) which may have something to do with them being on the West coast. But how does that explain The Gapís rude treatment to me? Iíll be going through Germany in a few months and dropping in on Hugo Boss.

I assume Giorgio Armani will have a flagship store in Milan and the head offices will be behind or above the shop. Nope. Though in the downtown area I make my way down a well-maintained side street to via Borgonuovo 24. I donít want to leave my bike on the sidewalk so I attempt to bring it into the courtyard of the building via a driveway. I spend the next 15 minutes arguing with an earring wearing male employee (definitely not wearing an Armani suit) who isnít a security guard and doesnít speak English but keeps pointing for me to get my bike out of here. Then two women appear who speak English and ask me what Iím doing. I explain and though theyíre both from public relations they arenít interested in helping out. I get directed to the receptionist in a small plain white room. The receptionist doesnít bother to call Armaniís secretary to find out who ended up with my advance material she just gives me a number for public relations and suggest I call them tomorrow. Someone needs to smack these people alongside their heads. Itís like theyíre in their own little world. Turns out Iím not at the head office but the offices for public relations. Several doors down are Armaniís offices. Well, I guess this isnít exactly the best day to show up because Giorgio Armani pleaded guilty to bribe-paying allegations. He received a nine-month suspended sentence and a $64,000 fineóthe amount of the bribe he is alleged to have paid.

Milanís suppose to be one of the worldís fashion centers with New York and Paris so I was expecting well-dressed, high-styling people. Itís nothing of the sort.

Finivest SpA

I leave one scandal-ridden company and ride a few blocks to visit another: Finivest. Headed by founder Silvio Berlusconi, who had to resign as Italyís prime minister last year due to bribery and false accounting allegations, Finivest has itís hand in a slew of businesses. These include Mediaset , the largest private commercial television company in Europe, Standa, one of Italyís largest retailers, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, publisher of books, magazines (including Italyís #1 newsmagazine: Panorama), plus cinemas, insurance and financial products.

Headquarters, a good-looking five-story brick and stone clad structure with the turn-of-the-century look is situated on tree-lined street. One enters the property via a driveway, which brings you to a tree and shrub-filled courtyard. The backside of the property butts up to one of Milanís smaller train stations. Miss Jole Da Rin from the press department says they never received my advance material plus I picked a bad time to drop by because in a few days the prospectus for listing Mediaset, its television and advertising subsidiary, on the Milan and New York stock markets is out.

Pirelli SpA

No rubber products or any other sign of what tire manufacturer Pirelli does is in sight as I enter their headquarters. Located in one of Milanís many downtown squares or piazzas, the white building has the turn-of-the-century look but, also looks as if it was recently renovated. Why am I not surprised to learn Pirelli, the big tiremaker, hadnít received my advance material. CEO Marco Tronchetti Proveraís secretary says to leave additional material and check back in a few days. Since I have to leave town tomorrow due to no rooms to be had, itís pretty futile situation.

On the road in Trieste

Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A.

Trieste, population 200,000 lies in the far upper right corner of Italy. Actually if you look on a map youíll see it occupies a hangnail shaped piece on land. On the one side, the country of Slovenia butts up to it. On the other side, the Adriatic Sea and, on the end side thereís Croatia. Itís off the beaten path to get here but itís gotta be done because this is where Generali, the fifth largest insurer in Europe, calls home. Revenues in 1994 were US$20.7 billion, profit $398 million, assets US$63 billion.

Expecting a big, monster-size edifice in the middle of town Iím somewhat surprised to find the four-story, stately looking head office on the main drag along the waterfront located directly across the street from a worn-looking Shell gas station. Believe it or not, the building is a light pink and itís not that bad of a color. Embedded near the top of the stone block building is the companyís name and the year 1831. Initially I enter via the grand front doors but Iím turned away by a guard and directed to a side entrance. Jeez, whatís the use of having a front entrance if nobody gets to use it? Turns out Generali hadnít received my advance material and I get referred to Giuliano Pavesi from corporate communications.

Seven hundred employees work here, and in several nearby buildings. The company was founded in 1831 and this structure was built in 1885. Due to having no advance warning of my visit I canít see CEO John Franco Guttyís office. I do get a look at the old boardroom, which features four chandeliers and marble busts of six former company presidents. With operations all over Europe and being somewhat isolated in their corner of Italy I was certain Generali would have a company plane. Nope. A small regional airport lies 20 miles away.