Giovanni Battista Pirelli
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Giovanni Battista Pirelli

In recent months, unrest has been high in Figline Valdarno, a town in the triangle formed by Florence, Arezzo and Siena. After 52 years, the Pirelli factory located there, which specialises in the manufacture of steel cord, the metal belt that is the fundamental strengthening element for radial rubber tyres,

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Thu 27 Feb 2014 1:00 AM

In recent months, unrest has been high in Figline Valdarno, a town in the triangle formed by Florence, Arezzo and Siena. After 52 years, the Pirelli factory located there, which specialises in the manufacture of steel cord, the metal belt that is the fundamental strengthening element for radial rubber tyres, is in danger of closure. Should this happen, 390 workers would lose their jobs, drastically affecting the entire economy of the region. What would the founder of the business, Giovanni Battista Pirelli, whose name is inextricably linked with the product he created, have thought about this turn of events?

 

 

One of 10 children, only three of whom survived infancy, Giovanni Battista Pirelli was born on December 27, 1848, in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, where his father worked as a baker; his mother, however, came from a family of gentry. To further his education, in 1861, Pirelli moved to Milan to study physics and mathematics at the Santa Marta Technical Institute. Having obtained his diploma, in 1865, he enrolled in a two-year course at the Faculty of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences of the University of Pavia. This being an epoch of patriotic fervour for Italian unification, however, Pirelli soon joined the third regiment of Garibaldi’s volunteers and went off to fight in the Third War of Independence.

 

Back from the war, Pirelli attended the Advanced Technical Institute in Milan. After a year studying civil engineering, he changed to industrial engineering, graduating at the top of his class in 1870. His effort won him one of two scholarships financed by an aristocrat from Milan, Teresa Berra Kramer, in memory of her engineer son. This provided funds for an educational trip abroad so that the winners could study ‘a new industry.’ Between November 1870 and September 1871, Pirelli travelled throughout Europe visiting 304 cities and just as many factories, where he witnessed the latest industrial developments. Advised by his professor and mentor, Giuseppe Colombo, the future founder of the Edison company, he concentrated on those related to Indian rubber, which became one of the most important raw materials of that century and the next.

 

At home in Milan, in 1872, Pirelli set up the pioneering Italian limited company for manufacturing rubber goods and called it G. B. Pirelli & C. His first factory, located not far from where the famous Pirelli skyscraper stands today, was small and employed only 45 people. The beginnings proved difficult both financially and technologically despite the company’s limited range of industrial products. Pirelli had to manage both the business and the technical innovations. He slowly turned the factory around, and within three years the company was supplying half of the nation’s consumption of rubber commodities.

 

In the following three decades, Pirelli expanded his company’s horizons, diversifying its product line, opening it up to exportation. Firstly, backed by an input of capital from a smaller French company, François Casassa, he branched out into rubber goods for haberdasheries and surgery. Then he moved into isolated telegraph conductors. In 1896, he established a branch in La Spezia to manufacture underwater telephone cables and had a ship, the Città di Milano, built to lay them. By 1898, he also began production of linoleum. In 1890, the first pneumatic tyres for bicycles appeared, followed in 1901 by those for cars and other vehicles. These revolutionary new tyres would soon be produced in Pirelli factories in Spain (1902), Great Britain (1914) and Argentina (1917), and would quickly appear on the major auto-racing circuits.

 

In 1905, two of Pirelli’s eight children, Piero (1881–1956) and Alberto (1882–1971), joined the firm. A third son, Giorgio, was put in charge of the English company in 1909, the same year his father was made an Italian senator. Giovanni Battista Pirelli’s nomination, in 1919, as the first chairman of the Confindustria, the powerful Italian employers’ federation was yet another of the many other important public offices he held during his lifetime. After Giovanni Battista Pirelli’s death, in Milan on October 20, 1932, Piero Pirelli took over its management, while Alberto Pirelli became an important figure on the international business scene.

 

In its almost 150-year history, the Pirelli group, now the world’s fifth largest tyre maker, has remained prevalently dynastic. However, lately, after several ventures into diversification went awry, notably a deal involving Telecom, the company is again focused on its core tyre business. As part of this strategy, two years ago, it announced its plans to sell off its steel cord interests, which, along with the factory in Figline Valdarno, includes another five plants (in Germany, Romania, Brazil, Turkey and China) that, in all, employ 2,500 people. The new owner is said to be the Belgian multinational Bekaert, a world leader in the production of steel cord—and Pirelli’s greatest competitor in this sector.

 

“A small but driven man with a visionary mind and an ironclad work ethic”

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