Is Alba The Entrepreneurial Capitol of Europe....the World?

How is it possible that a city of 30,000 people could be the entrepreneurial capitol of Europe? A very persuasive case can be made that Medford's sister city, Alba, Italy, is the premier city in the European Union when it comes to entrepreneurial innovation and multinational corporate development. The history of the great companies and institutions of Alba is as fascinating as its millennia of history as a city. Its most prestigious companies were born in the aftermath of World War II and are emblematic of the independence and perseverance of the courageous people of the Langhe who endured so much and sacrificed so much to regain their freedom.

Consumers worldwide instantly recognize the flagship of Alba brands, Ferrero, although they may not know that it is headquartered in its birthplace in the capitol of the Langhe. Tic Tacs, Rocher and Nutella are the most widely distributed Ferrero products but the company produces a wide variety of confections in its eighteen factories around the world. Ferreo SpA employs 21,500 people, many of them in its vast Alba factory. The presence of Ferrero in Alba is hard to ignore due to the expansive high technology plant and the Albapower cogeneration plant that delivers electricity to the factory and to the city of Alba as well. Anywhere in Alba, the rich aroma of fresh chocolate permeates the air and adds to the special ambience of the unique city of gustatory wonders.

Like many of the successful Alba enterprises, Ferrero was born from humble beginnings and a spark of Albese genius. Immediately after World War II, ingredients for pastries and confections were in short supply.  Pietro Ferrero and his wife Piera improvised in their Via Maestra pastry shop using hazelnuts to replace the scarce cacao.  They turned their shop into a factory, developed a distribution system and today Ferrero is the global success that it is. Michele Ferrero, son of the founder Pietro, recently surpassed Silvio Berlusconi as Italy’s wealthiest individual. In 2009 the company was named the world’s most reputable company, living up to its motto, “Work Create Give”. Link

The history of Miroglio SpA is a veritable rags to riches saga. Carlo Miroglio and his wife Angela sold cloth in the street market of Alba before opening a retail shop. In 1947 their son Giuseppe Miroglio decided to turn his parents’ retail business into a production and distribution company. The enterprise grew rapidly and incorporated not only textile production but ready-to-wear fashion lines as well.  The company has led the industry in production technology and fashion and now has more than forty factories located throughout the world. The company now includes Miroglio Fashion and Miroglio Textiles. They are also industry leaders in fabric imprinting technology and textile fiber production. Link

Spectators and viewers of the 2012 London Olympics will be seeing acres of artificial turf, running tracks and sports courts made by Alba’s Mondo SpA, official supplier to the 2012 Olympics. Typical of the great success stories of Alba enterprises, Mondo started very small. In 1948 Giovanni Edmondo “Mondo” Stroppiana started an artisanal business in Alba making rubber balls for “pallone elastico” (now called pallapugno), a sport peculiar to Piemonte and Liguria resembling handball played on a jai alai court. His children encouraged him to diversify and the product line quickly grew to a variety of rubber based commodities with a global market. Stroppiana’s nickname, “Mondo” was prescient because the company now not only has a global market but has provided the sports surfaces for countless world records in many sports. Link

Another generation of Alba entrepreneurs has emerged and the promise of the genius of the Albese continues with the same flair and success as their predecessors.

Alba has always been a center for great wines and great Piemontese cuisine. Many of the prized local dishes were once staples of the farmers of the Langhe whose rugged and simple lifestyle was so eloquently chronicled by Beppe Fenoglio. Late in the last century the world discovered the fabulous food and wine of Alba and the area of Langa Roero.  European travelers arrived by the bus load to experience the gustatory delights that Alba had to offer.

One local entrepreneur, Oscar Farinetti, realized that if the world would travel thousands of miles to enjoy the flavors of Alba, they would certainly flock to outlets that let them enjoy the same fare without leaving home. Starting with a converted vermouth factory in Torino, Farinetti created a unique shopping and dining experience that was an instant success. Eataly stores are now operating in New York City, Tokyo, Milan, Bologna and Genoa. An Eataly store is opening in Los Angeles by the end of 2012. Now travelers to Italy can enjoy this unique cuisine while traveling at 300 kilometers per hour on Italy’s new Italo train. The food served aboard the “Ferrari Train” is provided exclusively by Eataly. Link

Alba’s fabled wines have always commanded great respect and high prices in the world of wine. Many consider Barolo and its cousin Barbaresco to be the finest wines in Europe. In Alba and the surrounding Langhe, there are more than 750 wineries ranging from very small artisanal wineries to large family owned companies with multiple wineries and vast vineyards. A few wineries have gained world renown for their quality and innovation.

The Ceretto winery is a uniquely modern enterprise. In 1961, Bruno and Marcello Ceretto founded the current company on the winery started by their father Riccardo in the 1930's. They expanded the family firm over the years acquiring vineyards and opening new modern wineries. Ceretto has constantly sought new methods to produce superior wines. Their innovation in wine making has paralleled their patronage of innovations in art and architecture. From the “Cubo” the glass cube private tasting room to the “Acino”, the vineyard observatory resembling a raisin, they have brought unique design to the Langhe. The Ceretto family typifies the strength of Alba’s entrepreneurial family owned businesses and the involvement of the next generation bodes well for Alba and the future of the Ceretto brand. Link Ceretto Video

In sharp contrast to the avant-garde style of Ceretto, another of Alba’s iconic wine makers, Pio Cesare, continues to thrive and produce Barolo and Barbaresco in the traditional style. Pio Cesare is uniquely located in the city of Alba, within the ancient Roman walls defining the historic center of the city. Almost invisible behind the wall on Via Cesare Balbo, the winery extends many floors below the level of the adjoining street. A recent expansion of the subterranean facility required penetrating the original Roman wall several levels below street level. Pio Cesare Video

Founded in 1881 by Cesare Pio, the winery focuses on high quality Barolo and Barbaresco made in the traditional style. They also produce the other varieties of red and white wines for which Alba is also famous. It remains a family owned and operated enterprise that values its rich tradition. The Pio Cesare label attests to the family’s commitment to its heredity.  A label for a recent release of Pio Cesare’s Classic Barolo looks exactly like the labels on the ancient dust covered bottles in the wine library far below the streets of Alba. Link

Sustainability is the world’s best hope for its future. One Alba winery, Renato Ratti, has taken the leap into our sustainable future with their modern new winery in Annunziata. This architectural masterpiece is a remarkable blend of wine making tradition and modern technology.  Much of the new facility is under a “green roof”, covered in soil and a verdant carpet of grass. At Renato Ratti, Bibi Ratti and her son Pietro carry on the tradition of the late Renato Ratti, founder of the winery. Renato was not only a wine maker but a scholar who wrote extensively of his craft and the great wines of the Langhe.  The new winery adjoins the Renato Ratti Museum where the rich history of wine making in the Langhe is on display. Renato Ratti is another globally recognized brand but few know of the forward looking facility where its wines are produced. Link

It would be interesting to know what makes Alba so uniquely successful in creating and building great businesses. One common trait they all have is family ownership and operation.  That would certainly account for the love and care that goes into their products. It may be Alba’s rich history that has set the stage for success. Ultimately one has to conclude that Alba is a very special place with some very special and very successful people.

Doug Snider