Emma Marcegaglia, Business Europe president and “Italy’s iron lady”

July 14, 2013 4:01 pm

Emma Marcegaglia, Business Europe president

By Rachel Sanderson


‘Brussels bubble’: Emma Marcegaglia intends to spend only one or two days a week in the Belgian capital

When Emma Marcegaglia was four or five years old, she recalls playing a game of dolls with her brother Antonio, her fellow heir to Italy’s Marcegaglia steel multinational. “We’d say this doll is head of the commercial office, this is the head of production. I had all of these dolls working instead of making a party with cakes,” she says with a burst of laughter. It is telling that Ms Marcegaglia’s passion for business was present well before she became co-chief executive of the Marcegaglia group, making her Italy’s most high-profile businesswoman and earning her the moniker “Italy’s iron lady”. Later, as the head of Confindustria, Italy’s influential employers’ body, Ms Marcegaglia was the first woman to take on the role and became almost a daily media presence representing furious business owners in the last years of Silvio Berlusconi’s paralysed government.Her four-year term at Confindustria ended in early 2012. Having slipped out of the spotlight for a year – during which she took up yoga and martial arts – Ms Marcegaglia is back in the public eye this month as she becomes president of Business Europe, the region’s largest lobby representing 41 business associations, 20m companies and 120m people.

“The idea is to become the voice of business in Europe and to be constructively outspoken. If we come up against the position of the [European] Commission, then that’s not a problem for me,” she says with a glint of that famous steeliness.

Seated in the all-white decor of her study in Milan, she is wearing her signature spectacles, a fitted blue dress, diamond earrings and strappy heels. Her long blonde hair is expensively coloured. It is a classic model of Milanese power-dressing for the city’s steamy summer.

Ms Marcegaglia considers her greatest achievement at Confindustria striking an agreement with unions to negotiate contracts on a plant-by-plant level. It was the first big change in 60 years to Italy’s tradition of collective bargaining. Business leaders and entrepreneurs weakened by globalisation and the sovereign debt crisis welcomed the move. Unionists feared it made workers vulnerable but were brought around.

At Business Europe, Ms Marcegaglia plans another strike for business by taking on what she calls the “Brussels bubble”.

“The crisis is still here, we have to say that. We need growth and the crisis will be finished when growth returns. Growth comes from private entrepreneurs and we have a problem of competitiveness in Europe, a very big problem and we need to tackle this point.”

A quick-fire tour of European capitals in recent days underlined that Europe’s businesses want faster action by Brussels in the face of Chinese industrial might and a revival of US manufacturing power underpinned by its shale gas revolution.

“Number one issues are free trade and competitiveness of companies in Europe. Energy, access to raw materials, access to finance, red tape that we need cut.” She counts them out drumming each point on the table.

“We want an industrial policy for Europe. A real one.”

Ms Marcegaglia says her father helped to forge her tough streak. Steno Marcegaglia founded the family business during the Italian postwar revival. It is now a world leader in the production of steel tubes. Annual revenues reached €4.2bn in 2012. The company employs 6,500 people and has a total of 50 plants in Italy, China, Brazil, Russia and Poland.

“He was very poor but he said: ‘I want to become an important person’,” she says. “His idea was: I have to go on and it doesn’t matter if there are problems, I will solve the problem and I will go on.” His success even earned him Italy’s highest honour, the Cavaliere del Lavoro (the “Order of Merit for Labour”).

Ms Marcegaglia’s career has not been without controversy. She was lambasted while at Confindustria, for example, for her family group’s shifting of production out of Italy, a trend followed by many Italian companies seeking to survive a nearly crippling two-year recession.

Ms Marcegaglia says she is trying to focus production in Europe on value-added goods to maintain market share. “You have to also move and go where the consumption is so we are investing in China, Brazil, Russia. It is very tough but it is the only way,” she says.

Still, in the enduring fashion of Italian family capitalism, the Marcegaglia group is based in a rural village, Gazoldo degli Ippoliti, just outside the northern town of Mantua where it was founded. Ms Marcegaglia lives in Mantua with her husband, who is a self-employed computer engineer, and their 10-year old daughter. Her father, who is chairman of the group, her mother Palmira, who is managing director, and her brother and his family live nearby.

Commuting weekly out of Mantua to Brussels via several European capitals sounds like a chore. Managing to juggle her job as co-chief executive of Marcegaglia group, shake up the presidency of Business Europe and have a home life seems impossible.

The CV

Born: 1965
Education: 1985-1989Elementari, Medie, Liceo in Mantova Bocconi; 1988Masters from New York University
Career: 1989Joins Marcegaglia Group
● 2000-2002 Appointed vice-president, Europe, Confindustria
 2004-2008 Appointed vice-president, Confindustria, deputy to Luca di Montezemolo
 2008-2012 Appointed president, Confindustria
 2010 Appointed president, Luiss University, Rome
 2013 Appointed president, Business Europe
Hobbies: Yoga, running, Krav Maga
Family: married with one daughter

“This experience is making me strong on priorities. I cut everything that is not essential. You understand that a lot of things are absolutely useless. Before I took one hour to discuss, now I cut, cut, cut,” says Ms Marcegaglia, making scissor motions with her hands. A mini iPad and iPhone and her assistant Patrizia, who is “very good with technology”, are also invaluable.

Ms Marcegaglia will spend no more than a day or two a week in Brussels, partly to avoid that “bubble” but also because she will have Marcegaglia group commitments elsewhere.

Her move to Business Europe has reignited speculation that Ms Marcegaglia has her eye on a political career.Romano Prodi and Mario Monti both took the Brussels route to become Italian prime minister.

She insists, laughing, that this is not the case. “I want to do this experience because I want to know the European world. I want to become more expert on international agreements and trade. I want to do this experience for what it is. It is not in preparation for something else.”

Nevertheless, she hopes to hold the role for four years. Ms Marcegaglia will be 51 by then, a more credible age for high office in gerontocratic Italy. Analysts believe the country will also have worked through its painful post-Berlusconi political convulsions and be ripe for new leaders.

In Italy, Ms Marcegaglia is one of very few women to have held prominent roles in business and public life.

And yet at a time when executives such as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, have raised their profile talking about their experience of being a senior woman in business, Ms Marcegaglia is notably reluctant to talk about the issue.

She says that she is aware of her privileged background and therefore her experience may not be representative. Controversially, Ms Marcegaglia did not make a stand on women’s representation in the workplace when head of Confindustria. Valore D, an association of Italian business women, was frustrated by her opposition to female quotas for boards.

“In the beginning, I was against the idea that only because I am a women I get entry,” she says.

She has since softened her position and thinks perhaps demanding quotas for a short period could be helpful in some situations. “But I am against a European directive, the same way for everyone and for it to stay the same for ever.”

Pressed for advice for other women in business, she concedes: “You must not be afraid of things. If you are afraid of things you stay in this prison. If you are not afraid, you can do it. It’s very difficult but you can do it.”

Like many high-profile working women, Ms Marcegaglia says she relies on a supportive spouse to help her with the juggle.

“I have the privilege that my husband is helping me a lot. We have this agreement that when I’m not with my daughter, he is with our daughter.”

With another burst of laughter, she adds: “My daughter is also fantastic. You come back home from seeing Ms Merkel and my daughter says ‘Mama, today I was at school and had a fight with my friend’. This pulls you back to earth. This helps a lot, this is very important.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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