What makes a man decide to become a businessman and then to start producing pan supports for cookers rather than whole cookers or ovens? And what makes him do it in a corner of the Italian provinces where there is no concentration of comparable industry? Just what does globalisation mean for such a niche market as pan supports? These are just some of the questions we are mulling over on our way to talk to a man who makes enamelled pan supports in a firm based in San Vito al Tagliamento, in the province of Pordenone, on the fringe of Italy’s north-eastern industrial area.
When we meet him, our interviewee is a cordial, open person who is quite prepared to answer our questions and throw light on our uncertainties. His name is Roberto Da Sie. At 56, he is the proprietor of Cosma, which produces pan supports on the Ponte Rosso industrial estate on the outskirts of San Vito.
Born in Pordenone, Roberto Da Sie is 56 and holds a degree in Business Studies. After accumulating experience in a variety of fields and working in North Africa with state-owned and private petrochemicals companies, he and a group of freinds established Cosma in San vito al Tagliamento to produce pan supports made of wire strip. He is currently the firm’s proprietor and is assisted in its management by his nephew Giancarlo Locatelli.
“Many of the firms that work in this area operate in the orbit of the Electrolux group, which took over Zanussi Elettrodomestici of Pordenone back in the eighties,” explains Mr. Da Sie. “Over the years, these firms have spawned managers who have enabled a whole series of businesses large and small to spring up in this border area between Veneto and Friuli, which have become a landmark for the industry’s big multinationals.”
“Some friends and I set up Cosma back in February 1980 with Zanussi’s requirements in mind,” continues Da Sie. “We started by buying up some machinery from a craftsman who made a product that was innovative at that time, constituting an alternative to the cast iron and stainless steel pan supports in use in those days. Producing cast iron is a complex, anti-ecological process that makes the end product expensive and difficult to come by. The chromed pan support was cheaper, but deteriorated quickly so that it soon looked unattractive. So the logical solution was to look for a simple, cheap material with good looks and resistance to replace both of them. Another factor was that it was at just that time that domestic appliance manufacturers started outsourcing components as a way of cutting their overheads. The product was the wire strip, a cold laminated drawn steel with rounded edges that appealed to users. It was this combination of events that gave us our moment, although we also had our fair share of difficulties. We made our way by trial and error: in the early years, we made raw pieces and outsourced the enamelling, which was done by spraying the material with liquid and then firing: later on, we bought an enamel firing kiln of our own and an electrostatic powder cabin for the dry spraying that was innovative in those days. After some teething troubles, we managed to design a simpler, cleaner process that everyone else then followed.”
Q: How do things stand with the production of pan supports these days?
“Cast iron has come back into vogue for the rich top of the range products; it is very attractive, but remains more fragile, absorbs more heat and costs far more than other materials. Wire strip pan supports are very popular in free-standing cookers: as I said, they are cheaper, while chromed ones lose their looks and deteriorate quickly. We have also produced some very small runs of pan supports in non-standard colours, but they were quite exceptional cases. Although we were quite afraid of them, the arrival of glass ceramic hobs did not herald a downswing for pan supports, because the hobs are so expensive.”
Q: And how do things stand with markets?
“The pressure on our prices is a constant, while the investments we have to make are very expensive. Pan supports are products that call for lots of manual work and a long period of staff training. We all know what the effects of the introduction of the Euro have been. In addition, the trend towards globalisation has continued and new first-level markets have emerged, especially in Eastern Europe. The big multinationals are growing into a smaller number of conglomerates, swallowing up the smaller fish and heading eastwards towards Russia, Poland and Romania, where they want to have their outsourcing available locally, which means that component manufacturers have to follow suit. And that is what we have done.”
Q: Cosma really has followed them all the way to Romania.
“Yes, we have built a plant in the north of Romania, near the borders with Hungary and Ukraine. It is already running and employs about a hundred people. That was certainly a challenge: there are not many metallurgical plants in that area, but we wanted to be close to our customers.”
Q: Tell us something about your relationship with enamel.
“Enamelling is a marvellous process. When you fire at 840°C, you get glazed products with bright colours that will last a lifetime, stand up to wear and tear and stay clean.”
Mr. Da Sie then moves on to talk about CISP, as Cosma has been a member for some time.
“Our technicians have done some very important work together with the Association to identify standards for testing pan supports. We have succeeded in doing away with a lot of the controversy and misunderstandings about the range of potential product defectiveness. We could do more together, but there is so little time… such a pity.”
He admits that he had been thinking of innovative applications whose results could be excellent from all points of view, such as panels for urban railway systems, underpasses and motorway tunnels…
“It is reassuring to see that something interesting is happening,” he says as we look at the article in the last issue of Smalto Porcellanato that discussed using enamelled panels in tunnels, “but it only makes me believe that my hunch was right. Unfortunately, there are so many things that distract your attention, so ideas and projects get put on ice, even the best ones… but we should be letting our imagination fly free, thinking of the future, even if that does mean that we may look a bit visionary. At the moment, there is nothing new around, or at least I am not aware of anything. Price is very important in the first buy market, but at the top of the range ideas also count. There are still plenty of things that could be done even with a cooker… We have tried, tested and experimented, with the more aware customer groups; we have dismantled plenty of products to learn about them, about how to make them better. For now, we have not achieved enough concrete results…”
While Mr. Da Sie walks me back to the entrance, he tells me about the industrial North-East and how it is changing visibly; how it is struggling so hard – maybe too hard – to overcome the change in generations, and how it is aiming decidedly towards Eastern Europe, as Cosma has done. “We want to globalise. That is our idea, also because we want to stay near the big multinationals”.
Maybe we can also learn something from young Mr. Giancarlo Locatelli, at 34 a shareholder in the company, whom we meet on the stairs: “He is younger…”.
Maybe he – or someone else in his generation – will manage to find the time to let his imagination fly free, to grasp that something special that will enable him to make cookers, pan supports and enamel achieve the quantum leap…
Cosma was established by Roberto Da Sie and a group of friends in San Vito al Tagliamento in 1980. Together, they contacted a craftsman in Varese and bought some machinery for an innovative product, wire strip, that was to replace cast iron in producing pan supports for cookers and hobs. During the eighties, Cosma made its mark for its constant ability to innovate its products and processes: it was the first to introduce electrostatic powder enamelling for pan supports, developing simpler, more environmentally friendly processes. Roberto Da Sie is now flanked in the management by Giancarlo Locatelli, 34.
Cosma now has a new plant in Baia Mare, in northern Romania, some sixty kilometres from the borders with Hungary
and Ukraine, which started integrated production in June 2003 and employs about one hundred people.
Although Cosma also produces cast iron and chromed pan supports, most of its products are made of wire strip. With 110 employees, the firm has a turnover of 11 million Euros, 30% of which is generated directly abroad, and an annual growth
rate of 10%.