Background To Business in Italy

Italy has struggled to post the 2008 banking crisis and subsequent recession and now has one of the highest levels of public debt in the European Union.

These levels of debt, coupled with a difficult set of demographics, make it imperative that the country embarks on a series of painful reforms – but the complexities of Italian political life make these reforms difficult to agree up and implement. Traditions and a sense of history play powerfully on the Italian minds and both of these have heavily influenced the Italian approach to business.

Italians are famous the world over for their sense of family and it could be said that this strongly relationship-oriented approach has been taken into the world of commerce. Indeed, it is true to say that the Italian economy has a greater percentage of small and medium-sized, family-run businesses than any other European state (with the possible exception of Spain.) This is not to say that all companies are riddled by nepotism and old-style cronyism but the idea of an enterprise being an arrangement of strongly felt relationships is still very much in evidence.

Therefore, although Italian companies tend towards a high degree of hierarchy, the company organisation chart will not necessarily give an accurate guide to how the organisation functions in reality. In reality, the structures of the company will be defined by the network of relationships which percolate through the company – strict functional reporting lines taking a back seat to less tangible but stronger ties of personal loyalty and respect. Job title is not always a true indication of the level of power and influence which is more likely to be defined by who you know and who is keeping you in the loop.

Added to this complexity are such issues as long-standing political affiliations and regionalism, which continue to infuse the whole economic structure of a state which maintains a high level of nationalised industries (in comparison with many other EU countries.)

Another by-product of family orientation in business and love of region is that Italy has one of the least mobile management populations in any of the major industrialised nations which can pose problems for foreign capital companies who attempt rationalisation programmes between, for example, offices in Milan and Rome.

Italy, however, remains the 7th largest economy in the world and the 5th largest by industrial output. It boasts world-class companies in the fields of automotive, precision engineering and textiles and fashion and is a business culture that simply cannot be ignored.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in Italy

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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Despite Italy’s much publicised economic difficulties, following the global banking crisis, it remains a vibrant and attractive economy which not only has an active export base but which is also open to new products and new ideas from abroad. Doing business in Italy has proved highly successful for scores of global companies – and will continue to do so as the country continues to grow at a steady rate.

Italy has a well-educated and discerning consumer base as well as a vibrant manufacturing sector with thousands of SME’s producing a wide range of high-quality goods across a number of sectors. Both the Italian consumer base and SME companies need new products and services and are actively looking to work with international partners who can add value to their lives. If you are not doing business in Italy at the moment, you should start to scan the market for opportunities as soon as possible.

Italy represents an attractive opportunity but that does not mean everything will be plain sailing when you get there. Like all countries, Italy has a distinct and unique business culture. Don’t expect business in Italy to function like things do ‘back home’.

Italian business is very relationship oriented and who you know is incredibly important. How are you going to make those all-important first connections and, when you meet them, how will you make a good impression? Are you speaking to the right person within a prospect organisation? How effectively will you be able to communicate your ideas and what are the ‘hot-buttons’ in Italy? These issues could mean the difference between success and failure.

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of Italian business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips