Interview with Antonio Baldaccini
Chiaroscuro, number 48, year IX
By Claudio Stella and Alessio Vissani
We met with Antonio Baldaccini, CEO of UMBRAGROUP, one of the most important industrial institutions, not only in Foligno, but in the entire region.
We would like to begin with the origins of your adventure, naturally referring to the founder of the company, your father, Valter Baldaccini.
I always remember my father as a leader, as a fundamental figure, not only in my personal development, but also as a professional. I’ve tried to assume some of his qualities that are necessary for carrying out certain activities. I always appreciated his ability to relate to others, and to put people at ease, together with his respect for others regardless of gender, religion or nationality. His openness always fascinated me and this encouraged me to go abroad to study, to encounter people and communities with cultures and religions different from ours. I studied in Los Angeles, where I studied business administration. Certainly having a father like mine was a great opportunity, but also a challenge. All this helped me both at the beginning of my career, when I was in sales, and later, when I stared to deal with business management. In both positions, you have to know how to interact with others, to know how to accept suggestions and recognize contributions. Even when your position makes it necessary to make a choice, it should never appear as a directive, but as a shared decision. My father always knew how to practice the art of listening to the men and women he interacted with. I learned the model of the servant leader from him, that is, of the leader who puts himself at the service of the community in which he works. My father naturally possessed this quality. My studies allowed me to broaden this quality. This was an important part of studying with Jesuits: there I realized that essentially, Saint Francis represents the first example of the servant leader, and that it is important to know how to blend the entrepreneurial spirit with a spiritual component. The other thing I picked up from my father is a visionary soul, to reach for a future that can be better, the willingness to accept challenges. In this, sports can help, because they train us to fight and try to overcome our challenges.
Continuing at the beginning of your path, can you tell us how the idea of doing business in a sector as particular as yours came about?
Let’s not forget that Dad was a mechanical engineer and always wanted to create job opportunities for people. He decided to focus on a single product, namely the bearing, for which the German company FAG had made investments in Italy. And he had the foresight to see the larger application for the ball screw in trying to expand the customer base, and to be able to go from a single product for a single customer to a product that could pertain to different types of clients. We were also lucky, because at the time, in 1978, when the decision was made to introduce the ballscrew, Italy was chosen for what was called the “Tornado Program”. The need then arose to create a company in our country that would specifically deal with this product, and ours was considered the most suitable because it was already dealing with bearings. Licenses were acquired by a French company, and from there, the story began. Then there was another stroke of luck – after all, luck is useful in every area of life – when the buyer for FAG received a call from the buyer for Boeing who asked him if he knew of a company In Europe that produced recirculating ballscrews: of course he named our company, and this allowed us to expand to the US market. I’d like to clarify that the skill is in delivering an effective product, but it is also important to have the opportunity to enter the market. The collaboration with Boeing evolved further when in 1992, we were asked to make a product that did not need maintenance. Up to then, a good four maintenance cycles had been necessary in an airplane’s lifespan. For Boeing, the cost of the ballscrews was not as much in their purchase as it was in their maintenance. The challenge, therefore, was to create a product that lasted as long as the life of an airplane (or about 25 years). Umbra Cusinetti accepted the challenge, supported by FAG that had invented an anti-corrosive material. From there, we created a product that, by combining steel balls with ceramic balls, has fully achieved the objective, and is still fully satisfactory today. And since Boeing dictates the rules for the entire aviation market, it is clear that this was a huge boost for the development and expansion in the market for our company. And today, Umbra, having acquired its largest competitor, which was Thomson Aerospace & Defense, is located not only in the European market, but also in the US Market.
So, can you say something about your company’s reach, now that you move between Italy, Germany, and the United States?
Sure. For now, we have not looked at the market in the Far East because, at the moment, it does not meet our needs. Instead of further enlarging the market, while maintaining our craftsman spirit, we are trying to consolidate the value of the product, focusing more on quality than on quantity. With this in mind, we have been working on technology, investing approximately 30 million Euro between 2017-2019, while also increasing our investments in human capital. The objective for the next few years is to grow both internally, by strengthening the customer base and the products we sell, but above all, to also be open to new opportunities through new acquisitions. In fact, it is not impossible that there will be significant acquisitions in the European and American markets in the next 24 – 36 months. Today we have a turnover of about 200 million, we aim to reach 300 million in the next five years, being aware that a company must be able to bill half a billion to successfully establish itself in the aerospace sector. In this way, acquisitions represent the main path for growth, because, in spite of logistical and organization difficulties, they afford effective human and business synergies. Our family does not have a monolithic mentality, as part of an acquisition; we are also willing to give up some management space, and with this view of the future, we would also consider the possibility of going public on the stock exchange. In any case, even though our family has the majority of ownership shares, we have only one member on the Board of Directors. Beginning with the next Board of Directors, we will include Sandor De Poli, president of the Italian and Israeli Divison of Beneral Electric, and we’ve also taken Professor Carlo (Odoardi of the University of Florence on board in HR (Human Resources Manager). He is replacing my sister Beatrice, who has taken on this role in the Michigan division. With Dr. Odoardi, we will create the Umbra Group Academy, which will have the task of developing and structuring our model of leadership, focused on the figure of the servant leader, with the aim of expanding it, not just within our company, but to the entire community.
In the international dimension that Umbra Group has now assumed, is it possible for the company’s management structure to be transferred abroad?
We believe that the guiding spirit driving us is love and not fear: love for country, love for the land, love for people, and not fear of the country, fear of the land, and fear of people. We believe that it is necessary to appreciate the good things Italy has to offer. Let’s not forget that every nation, every region, every city, has its faults and weaknesses because it is always people who operate and guide them. Of course effective leadership is important for any institution, because this can strengthen and make the value of the institution itself more positive, be it a nation, a city, or a company. We believe in doing business in Umbria, in Italy and we invite talented young people to put their ideas on the line, to do business without fear, because in the end, in spite of all the difficulties, the company’s rule is simple: the good idea advances, the bad one dies; the good product is sold, the bad one, no one buys. On the other hand, if the territory and its city represent the root, in doing business we must always know how to look at a wider horizon, otherwise we fall into a sort of narrow localism that prevents a company from growing and results in suffocation. So we “think locally and act globally”, consolidate the roots, but move in a global territory.
Knowing your story but also taking a look at your site, it is very clear that your company recognizes an essential role for corporate ethics: how does this tangibly affect your entrepreneurship?
We have created an acronym that encapsulates our attitude: FIRST, where F stands for Focus on the customer, I for Innovation, R for Respect, S for Social Responsibility, and T for Teamwork. In this acronym we synthesize our business ethics. The focus on the customer means placing the person at the center of everything, it means creating products and services that satisfy the customer and does not consider this simply as a source of profit. In second place, we put innovation, defined as the renewal of technology and human capital. Innovating does not mean simply introducing new machines and new software into the production process. It also means challenging people in their positions and also aiming for managerial innovation. I believe this is the most important change I have introduced in the company. Here at Umbra, becoming a manager isn’t a lifelong position. You need to question the managerial roles starting from the highest ones: if I realize things aren’t working, I find it much more effective and easier to replace a number one instead of a number two or a number three. The logic is very simple: being a number one demands a certain level of performance. When this level is no longer achieved, the number one must be changed. We must therefore be ready to make unpopular decisions, always maintaining respect for people. We have never brutally terminated people, but we have replaced them and tried to offer them other opportunities, unless, of course their behavior was clearly contrary to the company's ethical and business principles. As for social development, the company must generate sustainable profit, reinvesting a portion of profits to strengthen the company itself, but at the same time it is also necessary to redistribute profits throughout the territory, through sponsorships in different areas, from sports to projects. If the company receives wealth it must also return wealth. Teamwork: it means that you do not have to focus on the performance of the individual but on the team's performance. Working on a process means not isolating oneself in an individual job or in a department but having knowledge of what others do. A full integration of all the company’s components is essential.
Please share two of your significant memories linked to situations that are particularly rewarding for you: one linked to the relationship with your father, one connected to your personal career as a manager.
Regarding my father, for now I want to emphasize how he started from scratch. My father is the son of a widowed seamstress but he created a leading international enterprise and his talent also launched him into community service. This is the most beautiful message that he transmitted to us. As for me, certainly taking the place of my father was a great challenge, because it's like being a part of a relay: just because the person who ran before me was outstanding didn’t guarantee that I would be as agile. We must always know how to run at the speed that is required at the moment. Certainly for me it was very gratifying to have been chosen, to have received the consent of my father, my sister and my brother especially because I was not a candidate to be the CEO. I was recommended by the members of my family. I confess that in many ways it is easier to be number two because you can compare yourself with number one; if you are number one there are times that you find yourself confronted with ... the mirror. It is only you who can decide; however, when this position was offered to me, I accepted with composure and with satisfaction, because I was conscious of having completed a formative path and acquired experience that enabled me to carry out this role. Naturally, composure also derives from the awareness that I can depend on a team that supports me in a fully adequate manner. But directing a team also means taking on the responsibility of the things that are not right: and if the team has not worked in a positive way, I know clearly that it is I who have not put things in place to work their best. Being the boss involves accepting criticism and knowing that what is going well tomorrow may not continue to go well. You need humility and mental flexibility to be a good boss.
Those who know you consider you to be an extremely humble and serene person despite your position of great responsibility and high prestige. I consider these admirable qualities. So, where do these qualities come from?
Ultimately, my father is the human and entrepreneurial model who most influenced me. From him I learned humility. I observed his authenticity, his passion and his determination. During my training I met other managerial figures and I learned something important from each of them. I believe it is essential to absorb the teachings that we receive into our nature and our personality. And let's not forget that a person's life is not just about work: there are hobbies, there is family, and there is a social life. The secret to living well is to blend all these components in the best possible way.
To conclude, I believe the key concept you have been expressing since we began, is that our biggest enemy is fear.
Fear is essentially having misgivings about our own selves. I believe that we should first have the courage to examine ourselves. I hear so many people complaining about their lives, their condition - in fact in Italy complaining is a kind of national sport. Well, I believe that if we have the courage to look inside, to evaluate our own behavior and our choices in the most objective way, we lay the foundation for changing our lives, to make them better.
We would like to thank Antonio Baldaccini for his extreme cordiality and for his availability.