Historical Notes: United family of Benetton

BY THE beginning of the 20th century, the family business was at its height as driver and beneficiary of national economics around the world.

In Britain and other countries, many such businesses survived world wars and recessions only to be destroyed by the imposition of centralised controls over wage bargaining, staffing and management during the 1970s. Those which survived to the 1980s were often fatally weakened and vulnerable in a "free" market where predators masqueraded as capitalist heroes. Now, on the edge of the new millennium, the Government is preaching the virtues of both family and the return to work; and perhaps it is time we looked again at the family business.

The real-life rags-to-riches story of the Benettons is a case study in point. Just over 30 years ago, the four Benetton siblings started out with a locally proven idea and an ambition which no bank would lend them money to fulfil. Today they supply 8,000 clothing shops in 120 countries.

What makes such a successful family business? As was the case in pre- Welfare State Britain, it took a dose of straitened circumstance for every measure of hard work. The lack of a safety net, even near-anarchy, would seem to be a prerequisite for the rise of such a phenomenon. Nowhere are family and the family business more proverbially the rocks of society than in Italy, in whose postwar ruins the Benettons grew up, and amidst whose political chaos they remain happily centred today.

This is a circumstance-based recipe for success, and it includes a hefty dose of fate of the kind against which you cannot legislate. Luciano Benetton was only 14 years old when his father died after a debilitating illness and a business failure, forcing the son to leave school and become the family breadwinner. Had his father lived, it would have been a different story. "I am convinced," he has said, "we would not be here today."

The most successful family businesses are also the most flexible. In a move which most likely would have been impossible in a business in thrall to institutional shareholders and market analysts, they have hedged their bets by building a separate and parallel empire based on motorway and airport services, restaurants and hotels. This may be a mountain with one of the best-known names in the retail world, yet the summit is not named Benetton, but Edizione: an all-powerful holding company, the 16th biggest in Italy, yet owned by a mere five members of the family.

This ability to preserve the interests of family while introducing new blood, be it human or in the form of information technology, is disastrous in its absence. When a family business goes wrong, it goes very wrong indeed, and excessive or misdirected exercise of family control is usually to blame.

The successful family business, like the successful family, brings returns for workers and worker-owners. In the case of Benetton, success has also brought legalised xenophobia in the form of American protectionism, and schadenfreude on the part of envious advertising agencies when the brand strategy backfired and the advertising went out of control. It has brought the sharp side of the tongue from the chattering classes, whose residual contempt for "trade" belies the fact that their own prosperity is founded on the same.

What is the moral of such a family saga? It may not be possible to clone such a phenomenon, but it is possible to learn from it. It may be possible, but not desirable, to be a retail giant that feels it has to be a cultural icon in order to keep it in the family. Either way, if a family keeps a well-managed business, the business will keep the family, if not always together, at least functioning through the inevitable hazards of death, depreciation and divorce, all of which and more it has done in the case of Benetton, to the next generation.

Jonathan Mantle is the author of `Benetton' (Little, Brown, pounds 17.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all