Size matters for Italian family firms

A classic Fiat 500 - small but perfect? 
A classic Fiat 500 – small but perfect? 

Italy may have a very high proportion of family businesses, but most of them are small and led by boards packed full of family members, says a prominent family business expert.

Speaking at a conference on family businesses at Bocconi University in Milan, professor Guido Corbetta, said that the size of many of the family businesses in Italy is a cause for concern.

“Among the 300 biggest family firms in the country, less than 20% have reached the size of €5bn, compared with 39% in France and 63% in Germany,” he said. This is likely to be hampering their growth, he added.

Corbetta also said that many of them need to professionalize their governance structures. “Almost 40% of family businesses in the country still have all-family boards of directors,” he said. 

Many of the businesses that have internationalized their companies are the ones where you see non-family members on the boards, added Corbetta. “They are the winners,” he said.

Another problem was the age of many of the CEOs running these businesses, said Corbetta. “More than 20% of big family businesses in Italy have CEOs who are more than 70 years-old.”

Corbetta made these remarks as he takes up a new permanent post as a family business professor at Bocconi, previously the post was temporary and mixed with other non-family teaching obligations.

Corbetta said that the fact the post has now become permanent shows the growing importance of the family business sector and the need for a better understanding of it among, not just academics, but policy makers and the sector itself.

Recently, the Italian government modified a scheme that gave more power to long-term holders of shares in businesses listed in the country. Although at first glance the scheme looks like it might actually hurt family businesses, in many ways it could be beneficial and help to overcome some of the difficulties Corbetta talks about.

Attending the conference were a number of Italian family business luminaries, including Ginevra Elkann, the sister of John Elkann, chairman of Fiat, Luca Garavoglia, the chairman of Davide Campari-Milano and Elena Zambon, the president of the Zambon Group.