Adventure!, Anisette, Executive Profile, Italy

Executive Profile: Orietta Varnelli, COO Distilleria Varnelli S.p.A.

Since 1988, Orietta Varnelli has been one of the owner operators of Distilleria Varnelli S.p.A.. In 2011, she became the president of ActionAid Italia. In 2015 she was named one of 3 women among the 13 senior directors of the Banca d’Italia. Today, she is my companion for lunch. I’m wondering what lessons women in public companies can learn from women executives in family owned businesses.

Family Owned Business

Family run businesses are Italy’s economic engine. As in the US, about 85% of all companies in Italy are family-0wned. Unlike the US where family-owned business contribute 64% to GDP, in Italy they contribute 94% of GDP.

Varnelli has been family-owned and operated since its founding in 1868. Which led me to wonder, is executive leadership different in family-owned businesses?

Over Our 5 Hour Lunch!

Much of  lunch was spent discussing the anise culture, but sandwiched (pun intended) between the cocktails & aperitivi, multiple courses & bottles of wine, we did discuss leadership and women in leadership.

Grounded in Values

Once an aspiring architect, Orietta’s life changed when her father died. She was 12. Her mother started her career a pharmacist, but had shared the business with her husband and become a fundamental point of reference for decision-making. When Orietta’s father died, her mother became the head of the business. When I ask her what kind of preparation her mother and sisters had for running the business she answers, “My mother and father shared everything – especially their values and seeing a wider responsibility for the business. She was educated in the company being a part of the local community with ties to the past and responsibilities to the future.

Her involvement in the business wasn’t so much a choice as it was an acceptance of something like destiny – to make a contribution to family and community. A continuation of the past into the future,  a commitment to tradition, the family, the local people and the land/terroir. She says, “I made myself available for something right.”

Time and again during our meal, we return to the concept of the family and business being integral to its land/terroir, community, and employees. Talking about the ingredients for the flagship product, Amaro Sibilli, we end up discussing the sustainable harvesting of gentian bark from Switzerland and how she is working to bring gentian cultivation to the lands outside the protected Sibillini mountains. The ingredient was first available there before the mountains became a national park. In the wake of the 2 devastating earthquakes in 6 months, helping local people develop income at elevations where normal crops won’t grow.

Talking about the use of Star Anise (often from India) versus the herb Anise, she speaks of working to retain a supply of the herb from the fields in Italy that first gave rise to Italian anisettes.

She speaks of work and life as many women do. With work as a small circle inside the larger circle of life – and a life that has a broad reach encompassing family, community, employees, local residents, the Marche region, terroir, country, industry. This is quite different from men who often see work and life as two separate (and sometimes not even touching) circles!

As these moments illustrate, Orietta frequently refers to the mission, vision and values on which Varnelli is built. This is significantly different than conversations with women executives of publicly held companies. When discussing the mission, vision, values of their companies the  words sound noble. But, as one expects from publicly traded companies, mission, vision, values are spoken of less often than strategy execution and return to shareholders. This is not to say that the focus on business growth isn’t there. It is.

External Strategic Relationships

In Leading Women’s leadership programs we stress the importance of external strategic relationships and choosing wisely how to invest time on professional, industry and market-influencing organizations. This is based on our research into the career trajectories of women CEOs around the world including F500, Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Our guidance is that the more senior you are and the higher your aspirations, the more important it is to be involved in industry and market-place influencing organizations – and to be taking leadership roles in them.

This is something that Orietta has done extremely well. An analysis of  the external positions she’s held shows that most of her external strategic networking activities are focused on leadership positions in industry (e.g. Treasurer of FEDERVINI or the International Order of Anysetiers) and market-place influencing (e.g. Banca d’Italia) organizations.

She uses many of her external relationships to spread the anise culture to grow the industry and create new opportunities for Varnelli. For example Varnelli sponsored and organized a tasting of all Mediterranean anise-based drinks. Wish I could have been there!

She also uses her external activities (e.g. ActionAid) to fulfill her commitment to social justice. Orietta believes that social justice should be part of the mission of every entrepreneur and business. That business and social justice can be integrated and she works with employees, customers and suppliers to make that a reality – to create a synergy that adds to everyone.

What Did I and Can We All Learn?

I left our lunch inspired by Orietta’s worldview about the role of business in the broader world and slightly surprised that the external relationship patterns we discovered for F500 women CEOs and other women CEOs around the world also make sense in family owned businesses in Italy.