Interview: Matteo Lunelli and the Ferrari of family businesses

The Ferrari of sparkling wine and members of the family, including Matteo, second from the right, that own it and run it

The Ferrari of sparkling wine and members of the family, including Matteo, second from the right, that own it and run it

Fancy buying one of the world’s most luxurious brands, a Ferrari, for the price of a good bottle of champagne? Because that’s how much you’d have to pay for one of Italy’s greatest brands. But you won’t be buying the world’s most famous sports car. No, instead you’ll get one of the world’s best sparkling wines - Ferrari Trento.

Ferrari, the sparkling wine has been around since 1902, and is arguably just as famous as its namesake when it comes to sparkling wine and champagne. Sold in various versions of rarity and vintages, but always with its distinctive gold and red coat of arms, bearing a lion, Ferrari is one of Italy’s most coveted premium sparkling wine brands.

Last year, 4.5 million bottles of Ferrari were made and exported to more than 50 countries. Connoisseurs of great wines and sparkling wines reckon that Ferrari is pretty special. It was judged last year to be the Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year at The Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships, and was also awarded the European Winery of the Year by the American publication Wine Enthusiast.

Ferrari is owned by a family business called the Lunelli Group, which is based in the northern Italian region of Trentino where the grapes for the sparkling wine are grown. Lunelli also owns wine estates in Trentino, Tuscany and Umbria, a high-end springwater brand called Surgiva, and Segnana, a grappa distillery. Lunelli also has an 80% stake in a prosecco sparkling wine group and a luxurious hospitality wine estate in Tuscany called Casale Podernovo.

Matteo Lunelli, a third generation member of the family owners and chief executive of the group, says that the family-side of the business is a defining aspect of the company’s success and ethos. "The family is the culture carrier of the values and principles,” he says. “It is the guardian and the value keeper of the company.”

The family is the culture carrier of the values and principles...
— Matteo Lunelli

That said, Ferrari wasn’t started by a member of the Lunelli family, but instead by a Ferrari - Giulio Ferrari - no relation to Enzo Ferrari, the man behind the other great Ferrari brand. Born in 1879, Giulio’s passion towards champagne and sparkling wine began at an early age. Gaining an education in France and spending time in the champagne region, Giulio started his odyssey to grow the best sparkling wine in his home region of Trentino in his early twenties. Within a few years of planting chardonnay grapes to make the wine, the Ferrari brand was born. “He wanted to create a wine of exceptional quality,” says Matteo. “And through his enthusiasm and hard work that’s what he did.”

But without any heirs, Giulio decided to sell the business to his friend and wine merchant Bruno Lunelli in 1952. So, it wasn’t until 50 years after the Ferrari brand was born that the family business as it is today started its journey. Bruno passed the business over to his three sons - Franco, Giorgio and Mauro - in 1969. And the third generation, led by Matteo, came into the business in the 2000s. Matteo, who gained a degree from Bocconi University and worked for Goldman Sachs before joining the family business, became chief executive in 2011. He works with his three cousins - Marcello, Camilla and Alessandro - at Lunelli.

Matteo reckons that a family business lends itself to the wine and sparkling wine world. "Since the family ownership allows you to have a generational view it is very much aligned with the time horizons of winemaking,” he says. “In fact from the day you plant a new vineyard, it will take over 25 years to create a great Reserve sparkling wine. It is like a generational renewal."

And, despite consolidation and luxury groups like LVMH buying a number of champagne brands, there are still many family-owned sparkling wine and champagne houses. The importance of storytelling around wine and champagne is often an important part of the success of these businesses. To link that to a multi-generational family business helps to build the brand and grow the business.

"In the wine sector, being a family business can give you a competitive advantage because it allows a long-term strategy,” says Matteo. “The family members can bring passion and commitment and they can be a perfect ambassador of the brand." There’s little doubt that Matteo, 43, is the perfect ambassador. He travels the world promoting the brand and running the business at the same time. And also helps to manage the family-side of the business.

Matteo and his fellow managers have been behind some pretty savvy marketing initiatives like partnering with arguably Italy’s best known football side, Juventus. The Turin-based side, owned by Italy’s most famous family business name, the Agnellis, just won the Italian football league championship.

But what about the wider world of Italian family businesses? With the economy comprising so many of them, what’s holding them back in achieving the international success as Lunelli has done? The small size of many of them is an issue often cited as a hinderance to their success.  And Matteo says that many of them aren’t able to scale up their businesses largely because of managerial issues.

"If you don't develop a managerial culture in the company than the family can be a serious issue,” he says. “It is a very delicate balance. We implemented the so called ‘Patti di famiglia’ (family bylaws) in order to regulate the relationship between the family and the business. It is important to manage  the family involvement and, at the same time, attract talent, and create a smooth and efficient organization.”

Could Lunelli provide a good role model for others to follow? One thing is for sure, Lunelli has been able to thrive for more than 110 years and appears stronger than ever under its third generation stewardship as it branches out to other areas beyond its fabled Ferrari brand. Family businesses, not just in Italy, could learn a thing or two about running a successful family business over three generations. Lunelli might be a perfect place to start.