Book Of The Week: Family fortune's rise and fall

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The Independent Online
Benetton. The Family, the Business and the Brand

by Jonathan Mantle

(Little Brown, pounds 17.99)

BENETTON the book is a bit like Benetton the brand. It starts with colour, freshness, and is full of interest. It grows into something comprehensive, international, vibrant, stimulating and challenging. It finishes as something slightly confused, losing authority and leaving lots of questions unanswered.

What really happened to sales volumes, year on year, and country by country, as the brand lost its way, and allowed Gap and others to take the high ground of added value, mass market fashion? To judge from the book there was little change in the inexorable growth of business on a global scale. The closing of stores and the bankruptcy of franchisees is presented as a temporary adjustment. It is justified, in a phrase that is unfortunate in the light of recent developments, as "cleaning the system".

The supply chain innovations - dyeing whole garments after they had been made - and the realtime Electronic Point of Sale systems developed by the in-house IT maestro, Professor Zuccaro, are covered with insight and plenty of background colour. This is the pioneering period for Benetton, when their two seasons a year, with the ability to react quickly with flash orders, were revolutionising the clothing industry.

Once Gap arrive on the scene the book is muted on the company's response.

The book is very good on the family origins, and the evolution and development of the brand. The story of Leone - the father who bravely left for Albania to secure the family's future - to return home broken in health with malaria, and unable to provide as he would have wished for his family, is touchingly told.

Luciano Benetton, the oldest of the four children, took up the mantle, at the age of 10, of the family's chief breadwinner. His younger sister, Giuliana, even then extremely talented in clothing design and make-up, made nearly all the clothes for the family.

Luciano left school early, worked in a clothing store, and began to sell the colourful and original sweaters that Giuliana had produced in her spare time. The sales grew and grew, work was sub- contracted, and stores selling their goods exclusively were eventually opened. The Benetton franchise system was unusual, but in the early and major growth stages at least, highly effective.

The book also deals well with the development of Edizione, the totally family-owned holding company that diversified into other areas, and became a big player in Italian business. In addition, some of the darker sides of business development are handled well, including the sometimes breathtaking shenanigans that went on in Benetton Formula One motor racing (particularly those involving Michael Schumacher).

Overall, Benetton is a book that is both engaging and illuminating. For full satisfaction, it is perhaps best to approach it as an excellent holiday read, with business side benefits, rather than a must-read piece of business education.

Tim Drake co-founded Cobra Sports in 1979, and sold it in 1992, when it was turning over pounds 17m. He is now a retail strategy consultant and an author