Borso del Grappa is the home of Elba, the member of the De’ Longhi group of companies that specialises in domestic cooking appliances, a firm with clear ideas and plans, whose roots go deep into the home and the world. “We also believe we are rather good enamellers” admits Managing Director Antonio Angelo Pilati.
If Bassano del Grappa is famous for its white asparagus, Borso del Grappa is noless so for its bisi, the peas that go to make up the typical Veneto rice dish of riso e bisi. Both Bassano and Borso lietowards the end of a valley that evidently benefits from a rather special microclimate, as even olive trees growwild here, right up under the shoulder of the imposing mountain that dominates both towns, even featuring in their names.
“Yes, it’s true, we stole a few fields away from the bisi to expand this factory, back between 1987 and 1991, increasing it from 18,000 to today’s 32,000 square metres, a tidy little investment of 20 billion of the Lire we used in those days …” is the wry confession we hear from Antonio Angelo Pilati, Managing Director of Elba, which manufactures its entire cooker collection in Borso del Grappa: freestandingcookers of various sizes, hobs and ovens for building in, with every conceivable power system: electrical, gas and mixed.
Elba stands for Elio Baggio, the company’s founder, whose surname is famous and quite widespread in these parts. He started up in 1950 in nearby Marostica, with a workshop producing lowcost wood-burning and then gas-burning cookers, meanwhile moving to Bassano.
Antonio Angelo Pilati was born in September 1949, is married with two children and holds a degree in Electrotechnical Engineering from the University of Padua.
Before arriving at Elba in 1984, where he has been Managing Director since 1996, Pilati worked on high and medium voltage tests at the C.E.S.I. (Italian Experimental Electrotechnical Centre) in Milan, and with products and markets for domestic appliance components with Zoppas Industries of Conegliano (TV), where he was marketing manager.
In the mid-eighties, Baggio felt he had given enough of his life to his career and sold his business interests to the up-andcoming company De’ Longhi. By that time, those interests comprised not only the business in Bassano, ELBA, but also SAIR, an industrial enterprise he had set up in Borso del Grappa in 1968, taking advantage of the tax incentives available at that time in this part of the province of Treviso, which was then considered to be an economically depressed area. SAIR’s core business was in manufacturing water radiators for domestic central heating systems.
Cashing in the opportunity to achieve industrial synergies, De’ Longhi soon transferred its radiator production from Borso to Udine and the cookers, hobs and ovens from Bassano to Borso, where they would be able to make use of the larger, more rational factory that resulted when the existing structure was extended and modernised.
The firm’s entire production layout wasredesigned and new enamelling lines were installed on that occasion.
“In 2004, we produced 220,000 cookers, 180,000 hobs and 90,000 ovens”, continues MD Pilati. “In the last few years, we have progressed from small-scale kitchen products to the high end of the range, the better to tackle the relentless competition of countries in Eastern Europe, Turkey and North Africa… We donot yet feel the full brunt of Chinesecompetition, because, at least for now, they are producing for their own domestic market… although we are already feeling some effect in the area of hobs. In order to dribble our way out of the clutches of this kind of competition, we abandoned the cheap end of the market about five or six years ago, keeping only as much as weneeded to complete our customer service.
Our focus is now on productspecialisation, the high end of the range,attention to safety, standards and gooddesign and positioning in the upperechelons of the international market.
“With the De’ Longhi and Elba brands,as with the English brand Kenwood since2001, we have adopted a product andbranding policy that is designed to makeus stand out from the crowd. And thatstrategy has paid off: we are wellestablished all over the world: in Europe, Australia, Africa, South-East Asia and,since 2004, the United States and Canada.
“Since 1998, we have been introducing‘professional-domestic’ products’”,continues Pilati. “The difference is that the mentality behind the production process is not craftsmanship any more, but industrialisation. We have improved our products’ performance, their design and their functionality, features that all combine to make them better able to compete against other European manufacturers.
“We could say that we have made professional products a bit more ‘democratic’. Our aim was to get out of the rut of the price war with our competitors, shifting our benchmark to a more highly evolved clientèle that looks for products with more status, though without wanting to invest a king’s ransom.
“I think we have been quite lucky, but also rather good at putting something of ourselves into this project.
“But then I myself grew up in the ‘Treviso School’ of thinking established by De’ Longhi, the firm that was founded towards the end of the sixties, is now quoted on the Stock Exchange and made its name with products, such as rotating fryers and air conditioners, that are held up as examples of their kind. For the Italians, the Pinguino did the same for air conditioners as Fiat’s Seicento did for cars. Some of De’ Longhi’s TV ads were so impactful that they practically leapt out of the screen at you and certainly made their mark. The ability to communicate is vital”, adds the Elba MD “but the same also goes for commercial, industrial and design capacities. We have developed products that are increasingly better in terms of performance, power ands sheer good looks – but also safety.”
Q: How much of this rosy picture depends on vitreous enamel?
“Well”, answers our interviewee without a moment’s hesitation, “just think that the company’s original name was Elba Smalteria Metallurgica (Elba Metallurgical Enamelling) and already had its own inhouse enamelling facility from the very beginning.
“We believe that we are competent, professional enamellers. We have five independent enamelling lines: ground coat by dipping for the cooker structures, ground coat by electrostatic powder enamelling for flat components and ground coat for cavities. Then we have two lines for wet application with pretreatment and pickling and direct enamelling on decarburised sheeting.
“We have two smelting kilns with a capacity of 4,000 Kg/h, one dedicated to the ground coat and the other to the cover coat, to avoid any pollution between the ground and the coloured coats and to guarantee the best possible quality of the finished products.
“We use two rigorously easy-to-clean ground coat colours. Including the pyrolytic coat, we apply 18-20 cover coat colours.”
Q: But… am I picking up a “but” in what you are saying?
“Yes you are: but it must be said that, although enamel is decisive, it is steel that is making the running and dictating the look nowadays… who knows, maybe things will change again in ten years’ time… the important thing is to have the fine tuning to understand how market
trends are developing.”
Q:Where do you think these trends come from?
“This particular one comes from the professional products industry: canteens, restaurants and hospitals, wherever there are big steel cookers. Having one in your home gives an impression of solidity, of something robust. And, these days, people don’t want to hide their refrigerators and ovens away any more: beautiful, well-designed furnishings give your home that special touch, they make a statement about your status. We know that enamel is better than stainless steel, which is too delicate, easily scratched and more difficult to clean… but we have to beequipped to use this material too.
“Alongside the stainless steel version, we always also carry the enamelled one… I support CISP, which is committed to an important undertaking at a time that is far from easy.”
Q: And what about the future?
“We will need to focus a lot on colours, also bright colours, which are pleasant and give products a touch of personality. We also have cream white in our catalogue range… All the types of ground coat and self-cleaning pyrolytic enamels for ovens will have no difficulty keeping pace, while what counts for cover coats, as I said before, will continue to be fashions and trends. And they are set by bigger players than us. We are specialists in domestic cooking who are on the lookout for competitive advantages in innovation.”
Q: Tell us something about your approach to competition andglobalisation…
“The De’ Longhi group has been in China since 2001 with three facilities: all our low added value production has been or is in the process of being moved there, but our technology, development and design remain here in Italy.
“China and India have potentially huge domestic markets. Compared to countries like ours, where the market is just one of replacement, those markets are practically virgin, so we are practically obliged to go there. But you have to be good at keeping one step ahead and innovating. The specialists must be capable of maintaining a gap between them and their competitors. It simply is not enough to cry about the Euro, the Dollar, the competition… the world is changing faster all the time and we cannot expect to be the ones who change it… We expect that, when the Chinese do arrive here, we shall already be somewhere else…”
Q: Are you not even concerned about unfair competition?
“There’s enough of that in our sector and it is hard to filter it out. It germinates spontaneously. We have found cloned products, such as hobs and ovens, whose looks and design are identical to De’ Longhi products. But those who buy counterfeit goods from the Chinese pirates will end up having problems sooner or later. As long as we continue focusing on our criteria – products, brand, design and service – we will manage to steer clear of the rumpus”.
Those are the words – the precise, uncomplicated, determined words – of Antonio Angelo Pilati, a native of Bassano del Grappa, where he still lives now, and Managing Director of Elba in Borso del Grappa, specialists in domestic cookery appliances. What do we put it down to? The area’s asparagus? Its famous bisi? Its microclimate and the mountain that makes its presence felt everywhere? … or personal ability and those good schools?
The name Elba is an abbreviation of the name of the entrepreneur Elio Baggio, who established an enamelling works in 1950 in Marostica (near Vicenza), in association with the production of wood and coal burning stoves for cooking and heating, specialising in the enamel components for stoves, cookers, bath tubs and wash basins requested by northern Italy’s leading industrial manufacturers.
Intuiting the change that was to lead to the economic boom an new lifestyles, in 1960 Elio Baggio built a new plant in Bassano del Grappa, near Vicenza, specialising in freestanding cookers, to which he gave the name Elba in 1964.
At the end of the sixties, exports accounted for 80% of production, which had progressed from 20,000 to 120,000 pieces per annum. In 1978, production of builtin ovens and hobs was launched, rapidly making itself felt in all Europe’s leading markets: France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
In 1987, Elio Baggio sold all his manufacturing interests to De’ Longhi, which in 1990 decided to transfer Elba’s operations to Borso del Grappa, near Treviso, where the availability of an area measuring 52,000 square metres enabled the existing 12,000 square metre facility to be extended to a total area under roof of 32,000 square metres, plenty for installing a new enamelling works and redesigning the factory’s entire layout.
A policy of continuous investments in new products, new plant and new equipment has generated a significant increase in production (now more than 500,000 pieces per annum) and in turnover (more than 87 million Euros in 2004).