Kerasteel is an enamelling works based in Saluzzo, in the Piedmontese province of Cuneo, that contracts work in from third parties. Displaying courage and inventiveness, this young, family-run firm has pioneered some interesting new ways ahead: in enamelling aluminium for wash basins and sinks, lamp holders in motorway tollbooths and discs for the electro-medical sector. It is now experimenting with cooking hobs for large industrial cookers and maybe the future also holds a venture in enamelling steel… Proprietors Alfredo Abello and his wife Anna Maria Borri tell us all about it.
Positive surprises often lay in wait forus right where we least expect to find them. How many of us would even have imagined, for example, that the area of Saluzzo, tucked away at three to four hundred metres above sea level, in that corner of the province of Cuneo that lies at the foot of the familiar white pyramid of Monviso (3841 metres, the highest peak in the Cottian Alps and the one that every Italian schoolchild will tell you is the birthplace of the mighty River Po), is home to Italy’s greatest concentration of kiwi producers? Yes, the fruit that we all still think of as rather exotic, even though Italy is now the world’s leading producer, has been earning a healthy income right here, in this basin protected by the lofty curtain of the surrounding mountains, for all the agricultural concerns that have not only produced new cultivars, but also kept an ancient agricultural tradition alive and flourishing.
But there is another surprise up here in the Alpine foothills: it is here that the reporter doing the rounds from one of Italy’s industrial districts to another unexpectedly comes across Kerasteel, a third-party enameller and more besides. And that surprise is actually two for the price of one. The first reason is because all this is taking place in an area that is still distinctlyagricultural in vocation, a land cut through by the deep trench of a youthful Po that up here is still little more an overgrown stream, a land that is home to several industrial plants, several of them quite large (Burgo paper mills, Michelin, Miroglio, Sedamil, Mondialpiston), although it is not really what the economists call a district. The second reason is because a small firm (only ten employees) that does not even make its living from enamelling alone (two employees work on enamelling for an average of a fortnight a month) has what it takes to generate good news, encouraging for the whole enamelling industry: news about the diversification and development of applications that have been occupying the title pages and the contents of our editorials and our conferences for quite some time now.
The Kerasteel story started about four years ago, between Saluzzo, where the firm has its registered office, and Verzuolo, where its operations are located. This is a firm that is best described as a family business, as it was founded and is run by Alfredo Abello and his wife Anna Maria Borri, who now manages the commercial and accounting side of things. They have no problem admitting that they embarked on the thought of a new entrepreneurial adventure so that they would build a future – as well as a lifestyle model – for their young son, who already enthusiastically gets his hands dirty with the enamel during his high school vacations. “Young people should learn things from the bottom up, get used to work by learning the ropes…” is one of the wise sayings typical of their own Piedmontese upbringing that are often repeated by the Abello husband and wife team.
Alfredo Abello, born in 1955, started working as an agricultural equipment installer at a very early age. Later on, he founded a company for installing and maintaining equipment for the food industry. In 2000, he started up Kerasteel, which he owns together with his wife.
Anna Maria Borri holds a degree in languages, has managed a foreign language school for children and later a translation agency, businesses that she gave up when, together with her husband, she founded Kerasteel, where she now manages the commercial and accounting side of the business.
Born in 1955, Alfredo Abello worked as an equipment installer as a young man, firstly for agriculture and then for the food industry. After completing his military service, he set up a business of his own with a staff of about fifteen and also rented warehouses out to other firms for storing goods: that is where he accumulated the capital necessary for his latest venture, which produces Teflon. Then came the change, when a customer asked him to coat aluminium plated sheeting with enamel at a temperature of about 600°. “It looked like gold” remembers Abello, “but the sheeting got scored and nothing good came of it, worse than nothing…”. The production line and the furnace were inoperative for a year and a half. As a result of difficulties with a neighbour, Abello also had to dismantle everything and reassemble it in another building, with all the losses that entails. Then, acting on the advice of some enamelling experts, he abandoned aluminium-plated sheeting and passed over to 4006 aluminium alloy. Once again, there were hurdles to be overcome (“As soon as the enamelled sheets had cooled down, they forgot they were supposed to be flat and curled up like a choppy sea…”), trying time and again, washing, sanding, firing and refiring… before the first positive results came along.
Then, about three years ago, came the request from the tap manufacturer Ritmonio to enamel a series of modern wash basins, made of aluminium and with the accent on design, pieces that gain an irreplaceable added value from enamel.
Once again, the results were slow in coming: there was quite enough to discourage anyone. But by trying and then trying again, Abello hit on the decisive intuitions for how to pre-treat the aluminium and how to proceed during the enamelling phase. Those basins became quite a fine showpiece, as a long period of experimentation has now been followed by commercial exploitation and, as the saying goes, one thing leads to another.
For several years now, we have been repeating the message that lining motorway tunnels and cladding service stations could become a goldmine for the enamelling industry. About one year ago, Kerasteel found a way of contacting one of the companies that manage Italy’s motorways: that contact led to a contract to make the lamp holders for the tollbooth at the Verona East exit (products that are also known as “bumpers” or “new jersey”, whose purpose is to throw light at bumper level onto the concrete structures that partition the lanes at motorway tollbooths). Once that contract had been completed and appreciated, it led to another order being placed last January, for another 1,500 metres of lamp holders to be delivered next May. At the moment, Kerasteel is the only firm in Italy capable of supplying this material. And there are plenty of tollbooths on Italy’s motorways…. And also plenty of tunnels in need of lining… This is one road that is destined to grow broader, just as the Po does as it flows from here down to the sea, until it becomes another motorway…
Kerasteel can boast an array of quality products, all of which give a good idea of its directions and opportunities. And a good many more trails could be blazed by enamelling steel, both in the whitegoods sector and for tunnel linings, where the overriding requirement is for safety. Research is well advanced in the area of enamelling steel with dedicated products, though the details are not forthcoming at present for a variety of reasons. But there are plenty of those non-answers and shrewd looks (the uncanny, knowing looks of those who were born and bred in the country) that say far more than any straight yes or no… Kerasteel continues working for a Genoa company, enamelling discs for electrodes used in the electro-medical industry. In addition, the company is working in partnership with one of the leading whitegoods manufacturing groups to experiment an enamelling process with hybrid non-stick coatings, applied at 450° to cast-iron cooker hotplates.
Alfredo Abello also has a clear idea of what needs to be done to promote enamel even better: taking part in the construction industry fairs, such as Saie in Bologna or the one in Milan, presenting innovative designs, such as coloured ceramic-coated stainless steel claddings for large building façades. He also believes in targeting profitable niche markets: in addition to the tunnel linings and stainless steel already mentioned, that includes enamelling cooker hoods, whose colours can do so much for an interior design…
There is no shortage of ideas and projects here. But in the end,
Kerasteel’s proprietor adds: “We don’t focus on large quantities: they make a slave out of you, so we leave them to the multinationals and the big distributors. We prefer concentrating on custom products, even small and very small orders. Our motto is still ‘a few but good’… When there is no enamelling work to be done, we concentrate on the other branch of our business, assembling and maintaining plant equipment…”. Around here everyone, businessmen and private individuals, has a farmhouse, land and fruit in the genes, a solid agricultural and craft tradition, a safety valve for making ends meet and a philosophy of life.
And what about globalisation? Without a moment’s hesitation – but an instinctive glance at his hands – Alfredo Abello declares: “It doesn’t worry us at all! We stay here and go our own way.
In our niche, a world where nobody writes anything, because a handshake is still more than enough, people still pay in cash… ”
Perhaps it’s a bit like the Po, which becomes Italy’s greatest river by gathering all the smaller streams and great rivers it meets on its way to the sea, without bothering about the fact that there are other rivers both far longer and far broader in other parts of the world…
As of today, then, we can remember that up there, in the Saluzzo area, in that part of the province of Cuneo that nestles up against the triangular flanks of lofty Monviso, Kerasteel was born and is still growing: an experience worth keeping an eye on in the field of outsourced enamelling work. This firm points to a short road, paved with a good dose of entrepreneurial courage and imagination. One of the few roads that, as things stand today, can drive enamel production and its market out of the doldrums of its various – and increasingly lengthy and insidious – crises of market and perspectives. Kerasteel can be interpreted as an example of how to take the fine words we have been indicating as the vital passwords for vitreous enamel and translate them into fact.
With its registered office in Saluzzo and its operating base in Verzuolo, Kerasteel was founded in 2000 with a line for producing Teflon, which was later converted to enamelling first aluminium plated sheeting and then aluminium alloys. On the one hand, Kerasteel (10 employees) still pursues the business of installing and maintaining equipment for agriculture and the foodstuffs industry, while on the other it undertakes work for third-party customers, enamelling aluminium basins, lamp holders for motorway tollbooths and discs for electrodes used in the electro-medical industry; it is also now experimenting wit enamelling hotplates for industrial cookers and enamelling steel.