The “W factor”: enamel with a feminine declension at Smalvic
Could women’s organisational gifts and concrete, matter-of-fact approach be an extra arrow in enamel’s quiver? A convinced “yes” comes almost spontaneously after meeting with Paola Gasparini, MD at Smalvic in Sarcedo, Vicenza. Fifty years down the road since the company was established, she is giving it a new lease of life and focusing courageously on enamel.
This is not the first time that we have compiled a list of useful ways of relaunching vitreous enamel. Most of them happen to cluster together under the letter I: Investments, Innovation, Information-communications, Injections (of optimism, of courage etc.) and, in Italian at least (where it is Istruzione), there’s also Education (as in relations with universities). We must admit that the preponderance of the letter I has tended to make us neglect other interesting letters, like W for Woman... And we can’t put off admitting it any longer after meeting with Paola Gasparini, managing director at Smalvic of Sarcedo, near Vicenza.
With 110 employees generating a turnover of 11 million euros in 2007, Smalvic is one of the more ‘venerable’ businesses operating in the area of outsourced enamelling and domestic appliance production. It is still firmly entrenched in the position established in 1958 by its founder, the engineer Enrico Dell’Orto, who stayed on as company president right through to 1998, when he died and was succeeded by his daughter Carolina. Paola Gasparini is Carolina’s daughter and the charismatic engineer’s granddaughter. After graduating from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, she joined the company in 1992. She then set about studying the firm, especially its production, its staff and then its enamelling facility, before being appointed managing director three years ago.
“You’ve made a career for yourself...” is the first comment that escapes my lips. And she laughs: “That’s not such a big deal when it’s the family’s business...”, displaying a sense of humour and the ability to poke fun at herself that cropped up again repeatedly as we proceeded, together with other characteristics.
Paola Gasparini was born in 1963, holds a degree in Business Studies from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and has two daughters.
Since joining Smalvic in 1992, she had the chance to study the firm and plan its production, its staff and its enamelling facility before becoming managing director three years ago.
Q: Even so, a woman manager... one of the few I’ve ever met in the enamelling community...
A: Quite... so does that make it a rather backward sector?” she shoots back, still smiling.
Q: What’s it like, to be a woman manager?
A: You’re a manager and that’s all there is to it. It’s not as though being a woman makes that any different. It’s just a bit more complicated than for a man, whose life revolves basically around his work and whose family is on the margins. A woman who works has two jobs: she has to be far more actively organised at home, too, even if, like me, she has a housekeeper to manage the house. It’s not easy to keep a balance between the two roles, but it can be done if you are very methodical and very determined....
Q: How have things developed at work?
A: It wasn’t easy to begin with. Then people got used to it and I found I was being respected for what I showed I could do. A woman may have certain advantages on first impact with a customer or a supplier; as very few woman work in this field, there’s a degree of curiosity: people want to see you, you can strike up a friendlier relationship, but then you stay in your respective roles. I have also found that relations with my colleagues are on a par: in the end, you are not a man or a woman, but a person and you are judged by what you provide. One thing applies to everyone: if they find you a silly goose, you’re finished. You have to have charisma so that people will respect you.
Q: What did it feel like when you took over at Smalvic?
A: It was a wager. We had to complete the generation change in a period of difficulty, both for Italy and for our sector, both as an outsourced enamelling works and as domestic appliance producers. We made that change without any major hiccups thanks to the long-established presence of Ercole Cunico, a man who has been part of the Smalvic team ever since the original, ‘Officine e Smalterie Vicentine’, was set up and now works alongside me as a manager and invaluable advisor. What I have been able to achieve so far for the company has been by focusing on a more integrated, more organised working system, designed to achieve a business with a very strong, new and complete team spirit and attitude. Where I am not the (good) manager, but a member of the team. Or, if you prefer another metaphor, a (good) orchestral conductor, working with an orchestra that plays very well. That is why I have tried to give everyone a very clear role, so that we all know what we have to do, although at the same time the roles must not be restrictive, so there is space for manoeuvring that stimulates creativity, within certain limits. As we have about a hundred employees and I work in close contact with a score of them, I can have very direct relationships that transcend the official hierarchies.
Q: Does being a woman have anything to do with all of this?
A: Yes, it does. Women have to have special genetic gifts, an ability that nature gives us to cope with the biological role we have to play, and that makes us more practical, more concrete than men. Although in some respects we may be less creative...
Q: Also more ruthless?
A: Absolutely, yes.
Q: Does that describe you?
A: If I am provoked, I can be very ruthless. Once I break through my tolerance barrier, there’s no going back under any circumstances and, yes, I can be quite ruthless... I don’t have any brothers, so there’s no ‘competition’ in my family, but women always have to prove something more if they are to be believed, we have to raise the stakes, otherwise... Then, once you no longer have to do it that way, it becomes a habit.
Q: Can we talk about enamel with the same frankness?
Q: But let’s talk about Smalvic now and its fiftieth anniversary this year.. just like C.I.S.P...
A: The whole sector is beset with difficulties: enamel, enamelling works, domestic appliances… and one problem leads to another. If enamel is replaced in domestic appliances, the enamelling works lose out; operators who don’t have their own in-house enamelling facilities tend to reduce enamel... Then you have to add that vitreous enamel is unlucky enough to have to pay high prices, in both the production and the transformation phases, for energy and raw materials, the worst recurring news we’ve had so far this century… with prices that are still moving upwards relentlessly. But I think there is still space for reviving some past applications and finding new ones. Smalvic cannot do it alone, of course: it takes a joint effort and major investments by interest groups. Then we also need to do some work on enamel’s image: although this is a product with some quite uncommon positive qualities, everyone considers them to be somehow ‘normal’. Enamel ends up being applied only when it is needed: taken apart from steel, it has the reputation of being a poor option. We have to shake off this kind of thinking and develop a different conception of enamel. Design and art can increase people’s perception of enamel. Just changing the name without touching all the rest would be a waste of time: we’d be far better advised to work on our market positioning and image, but with suitable investments.
In some areas, colour is beginning to make a come-back after all that steel,” continues Paola Gasparini without altering her balanced tone and citing facts to back up her assertions. “Although we work on a small scale, we are also proposing colour in domestic appliances again. Our coloured and enamelled “Classic” line met with approval at the Milan Fair. We believe in what we are doing and have put enamel back into the Smalvic pricelists in various kitchen components that had been discontinued. As we have our own enamelling facility, it is strategic for us, also in our domestic appliance division. It’s a tradition we don’t intend to lose, both for reasons we could call ‘sentimental’ and for others that are industrial. Although it takes special energy to market enamelled products, you neither get nor sell something for nothing. Moments of optimism alternate with moments of despondency, when Don Quixote tends to come to mind...
A: Half a century is a watershed that obliges you to look at the state of your nation. The merit goes above all to those who preceded me – and I’m talking primarily about my grandfather and Ercole Cunico, his right-hand man from the very beginning – if we have had fifty positive, successful years. But it is natural that we may have lost part of the firm’s original drive on the way. The time has now come for us to reap the harvest and experience of the past, but also to face up to the challenges of the future, get updated and get down to work again with new vigour and new strength. We have redesigned our brand, so that our traditional lettering is now flanked by a graphic logo that represents a stylistic rendering of a firing bed. Although it’s an operation on the level of form, it is intended to imply more substantial values and meanings. It’s a sort of flag that I have nailed to the mast of my personal and corporate challenges. Which inevitably takes me back to Don Quixote...
Q: How will it all end?
A: You can only measure challenges against results, not against words or fine intentions. As I don’t happen to have my crystal ball handy, shall we do an update in two or three years?
In the fresh spring countryside around Sarcedo, the sun shines brightly on the young green grass, sparkling off the blossoms on the fruit trees... in a few days’ time, it will be Easter, with its messages of Resurrection... so words of hope and the will to defend enamel come naturally, even if that means tilting at windmills... titles about the usefulness of the “W factor” and other questions about the “women’s share” to be imported onto the enamel scene...
What do you think?
Smalvic celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year: the company was founded in 1958 by the engineer Enrico Dell’Orto to produce gas and mixed fuel cookers, gas stoves, wood stoves and kitchen furniture made of steel. It was one of the first companies to focus on built-in domestic appliances and vitreous enamel, two areas that are still mainstays of its activity today. Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, powder plants and automated lines, the enamelling facility serves both the company’s own in-house appliance production and the outsourced needs of other manufacturers, which currently account for the majority of Smalvic’s enamelling division.
The company is located in Sarcedo, in the northern part of the province of Vicenza, where 10,000 of its 30,000 square metres of under-cover facilities are occupied by the enamelling facility, which employs fifty people.
The company has a total of 110 employees and a 2007 turnover of e 11 million.