Peter Popham: In Italy, it takes more than talent to succeed

Wednesday 05 January 2011 01:00 GMT

Two old friends of ours were back in Italy over the New Year. We hadn't seen them for years. A married couple, both brilliant designers, they are typical examples of how Italy wastes its native talent.

We first got to know them when they were product designers in Tokyo more than 20 years ago: Vincenzo's invention, the prototype of a computer you wear on your body, was a sensation at the time. They moved back to Italy where they lived in a flat in the centre of Florence, a labyrinthine place carved out of a medieval palazzo with yard-thick walls and 14th-century frescoes. But no work: like many other Italian returnees, they found their country had no use for them.

Unless you have been the bag-carrier for some powerful professor and spent years sucking up to the right people, no amount of talent will open the doors of an Italian university. Jobs in big companies are like gold dust, and more often go to the well-connected than the well-qualified.

The story has a happy if paradoxical ending: husband and wife are now running the product design department of a college in Detroit, Michigan. It is located in a redundant General Motors factory. Detroit may be a frightening lesson to the rest of the US in how a great city can lose the plot, but the meritocratic American impulse survives, even there.

Our friends had walk-on parts in a documentary about Detroit that was produced recently by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster. The city is suddenly of acute interest to Italy: not only is it home to half a million Italian immigrants, but it is also the testing ground for the ambitions of Sergio Marchionne, the Italian businessman who emigrated to Canada with his family when he was 14; the industrial wizard who persuaded President Obama that Fiat, the company he headed, had the wherewithal to rescue Chrysler from bankruptcy. He is now chief executive of Chrysler as well as the two Fiat companies that resulted from the Italian giant's recent demerger.

You might have expected the documentary to be a hagiographical account of local boy made good in the US, but both Marchionne's story and Detroit's are too complex for that, and his success is far from assured. Assembly-line workers in one factory cheered when Marchionne told them the firm was hiring again and introducing a new shift; elsewhere he was denounced by demonstrators as the "bail-out bandit."

At a meeting with local Italians a tearful woman blamed him for the death of her mother, run over by her own Chrysler car when it suddenly came to life after she had parked it.

Why Fiat could have a bumpy ride ahead

The lumbering, mumbling, pullover-wearing figure of Marchionne looms over Italy's New Year. On Monday the two demerged Fiat companies were launched on Milan's stock exchange and enjoyed a good start. And within two weeks Fiat auto workers are poised to vote in a referendum on the new, tougher work practices he is committed to introducing into the firm's Italian factories, and which one of the main unions, the metalworkers', has refused to back. In line with his no-nonsense image, Marchionne has now threatened to stop building cars in Italy if the referendum goes against him.

It would appear that Italy's Thatcher moment has arrived. For most of the 20th century Fiat enjoyed the cosiest of relationships with the Italian state: Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli was the uncrowned king, and one government after another rushed to do his bidding, blanketing the country in autostrade while ensuring that the public transport network was so feeble that Italians became the biggest car owners in Europe, as they remain.

But that's all in the past. No more handouts are available for Fiat, and its only hope is to learn how to build cars as cheaply as the Poles or the Brazilians. For the country that invented the Ferrari and the Alfa-Romeo as well as the Cinquecento, this is nasty medicine to take. Sergio is the man with the large spoon in his hand, and as a result is becoming extremely unpopular, whatever his feats in Detroit.

The easy way to start the New Year? In denial

As it appears that we are all doomed to become inexorably poorer from now on, the time is obviously ripe for some positive thinking on the subject. The recipe proposed by La Repubblica newspaper, lifted from a man called Dave Bruno in San Diego, is to let some fresh air into your life by reducing your possessions to 100 Necessary Things.

Reduce your computers to a single device, limit yourself to three pairs of shoes, three pairs of trousers and three shirts, take all those redundant coffee machines, radios, record turntables, little-used items of furniture, fallback shaving brushes, spare bicycles, overweeningly huge old-fashioned televisions and pointless works of art and sell them from your car boot or give them to charity. Things like tools and make-up items you are allowed to consider single items, so you don't have to start counting nails and screws. Likewise there are exemptions for books used for work...

I suppose it's a good idea in principle, and it is cheering to think that it emerged from the US. But getting rid of all the stuff in our garage would be a full-time job: the very thought exhausts me. I think I will just carry on pretending it's not there.

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