Diego Della Valle: Going in feet first

The cobbler's son willing to pick a fight with Berlusconi
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The Independent Online

Diego Della Valle, the billionaire Tod's shoe baron, owns four homes, three boats ("unfortunately, usually moored where I am not") and a valuable modern art collection. Then there are the various prime office and shop properties, the Roger Vivier shoe business in Paris and the Italian football club Fiorentina. And, he prompts with an impish grin, he has had three wives.

He travels light, be it in his silver Dolphin helicopter, his red Ferrari, his cruiser the Marlin (once owned by his hero, President Kennedy) or the company's Falcon 2000 jet. "I like a simple life," he insists without irony.

He talks over lunch served by a butler on the top-floor terrace of Tod's corporate HQ on the Corso Venezia in Milan, in a 17th-century house once owned by a nobleman but now owned by his family and adorned with modern art. The 52-year-old is immaculate in a dark bespoke suit that belies his fondness for good food and wine.

"Every morning I wake up in one room," he says. "I shave. I take the same coffee. I have listened to the same music for the last 20 years. I go out with my youngest [Filippo, aged eight] to the village where I was born. I take him to the school where I was a student and I say hello to the same people I have known all my life.

"It's a simple life and the life I like. After, maybe, I take the jet and go for lunch in London, or I fly to Tokyo, or I spend from Tuesday to Friday going around our operations outside Italy in Europe."

His real home, and that of Tod's, is in the rural region of Le Marche, some 100 kilometres from Rome. The Della Valles have been rooted there for three generations. They have come a long way since Diego's grandfather, Filippo, peddled handmade sandals to pretty girls on Sundays, and his father, Dorino, founded the original Della Valle shoe maker in the 1940s.

Under Diego's leadership, Tod's has joined the first division of European purveyors of fine leather goods, alongside France's Hermès, and Italy's Gucci and Ferragamo.

Now his objective is to build Tod's into one of the top three European luxury brands by 2010. "The other two are Hermès and Chanel," he says.

His company is poised to roll out a broader range of silk and leather products, Marcolin sunglasses, and an exclusive limited range of womenswear to complement its premium-priced leather shoes and bags.

The company is the biggest employer in Le Marche, with 2,200 on its payroll. "We don't have any trouble with the unions any more in Italy, maybe because the economy is not so good," notes Della Valle. He has publicly attacked Silvio Berlusconi's government for overtaxing big business and failing to support small Italian enterprises, which account for most of the economy.

When, a few days ago, Della Valle attended a gathering in Vicenza of industrialists unhappy about Berlusconi's policies, he was surprised to find the Prime Minister breaking off from his re-election campaign to storm the meeting. Della Valle was so incensed at the intervention that he confronted his former friend, shouting: "Shame on you."

Della Valle insists he has "nothing personal" against Italy's Prime Minister, whom he supported in earlier years. "I am not running for office; I am an industrialist. Businessmen should not put their finger in politics because they tend to think only of their own self-interest.

"But I worry about the low morale in Italian industry and the lack of government initiatives to help the poor."

Berlusconi, for his part, has talked of suing Della Valle for defamation, to which the industrialist quips in response: "He has so many lawyers. I'll ask him to leave one for me."

Tod's has six factories, of which two in Tuscany produce bags, and four make shoes in and around its ultra-modern base in the Le Marche village of Cassette d'Ete. The 100-step production process means that Tod's shoes remain in essence hand-crafted. Yet some 15,000 pairs are turned out daily.

The company's iconic product, kid-soft moccasins (pictured below) with 133 rubber studs on their soles, was Della Valle's big idea in the late 1970s. He admired the casual but chic sartorial style of the Kennedy clan. He also noted that the Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli often wore classic racing driver's shoes.

Della Valle, who had chucked in his law studies to go into the family business, persuaded his friend Luca di Montezemolo, then a protégé of Agnelli and now chairman of Ferrari, to present the boss with a pair of Tod's driving moccasins. Thus he scored his first great coup in product placement, and a global brand was born.

Now Tod's shoes and bags are bought by some of the most affluent, and avid, consumers in the world. The group boasts some 150 stores around the globe and last year scored a 20 per cent increase in sales to €503m (around £350m), delivering net profits of €91.9m, up 37 per cent.

Tod's retains its strong family links. Della Valle is flanked at the helm by his younger brother Andrea and his two cousins. Meanwhile, with some 7.5 per cent of annual sales spent on marketing, his 30-year-old son from his first marriage, Emanuele, supplies advertis-ing services to the business through his own agency.

Della Valle knows what consumers of ultimate luxury want because he is living the dream to which they aspire. His main home, in Cassette d'Ete, is an 18-bathroom, 11-bedroom former monastery built surrounded by lush gardens.

A consummate capitalist, he makes bold forays on the Italian stock market, whether to raise his 64 per cent stake in Tod's or, when wielding family money, to snap up big strategic stakes in a few companies. He owns, for example, 5 per cent of RCS Mediagroup, which owns the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Meanwhile, his directorships of Bernard Arnault's LVMH, which owns 3.5 per cent of Tod's, and of Ferrari, give him "insight into how the best global luxury businesses work. I admire them very much."

Would he be tempted to take the fast track to the top three in the first division of European luxury goods, by agreeing to sell to LVMH or merging with Hermès? "Is that question for real, or a line in a movie scenario?" laughs Della Valle, who loves films, but not opera. "My company is not for sale."

When he bought Fiorentina in 2002, the famous Tuscan football club had fallen to Serie C-2, the bottom league, following a financial scandal. By 2004, it was back in Serie A and it now stands on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League. Della Valle has passed the club on to his brother Andrea and says: "It is our Sunday hobby. But football is not a science; luck comes into it."

Whereas success in big business, he argues, is down not to luck but to solid foundations and dedication in creating opportunities and beating the competition. "Si, si, I like to win - but with clean rules, I like to win. When I don't win, that does not disturb my sleep. I don't have the ego trip that if I win, I am, and if I do not win, I am not.

"You have to be serious minded in business, but not take yourself seriously."

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