A budding Italian renaissance23 February 2021
The country has been haunted by Covid-19 but Italian manufacturing, brands and reputation stand firm. The virus hasn’t wiped out innovation and there have been lessons learned, writes Penny Wilson.
Earlier this year Milan played host to Fashion Week and Covid-19 may have blocked rising Chinese designer stars from attending and forced Giorgio Armani to send his models down the runway in an empty theatre, but Italy’s fashion industry and reputation globally still counts for a bundle - almost US$20 billion and 1.3% of the entire national GDP last year. And by the way, Italy remains the uncontested international leader in leather while also boasting among the world’s most advanced, specialised textile production industry, reports Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC).
Laundries produce 13% of Italy’s GDP but inevitably Marco Marchetti, president of trade body Assosistema Confindustria, warns of trouble ahead. Forecasters estimate a €400m reduction in turnovers and about 5000 workplace units lost to Covid by the end of 2020. For many industrial laundries, business is down by between 72%-85%. Government grants are available but there is mass confusion about who can apply for them and how. “The role of an interpreter becomes crucial to understand whether a business does actually make part of the beneficiary list or not,” reports Detergo trade magazine in its November issue.
Italy may be down but it’s not out. Frail it may feel, but it remains the eighth largest economy and the fourth largest in Europe. It is also the tenth biggest goods exporter globally. With a 60.8 million population, manufacturing is critical to the Italian economy and Italia brands and reputations, not least in textile care worldwide, stand firm. Small and medium sized manufacturing enterprises (SMEs) with below 250 employees play a central manufacturing role and the country is unique in that it has a high prevalence of micro enterprises with minus 10 employees.
Covid hasn’t completely halted growth in some sectors, including industrial laundries, reports Statista. Nor has it annihilated innovation in the textile care industry. In some cases it rather seems to have accelerated environmental concerns and greener plans. Topping the charts on that front is Pony whose new photovoltaic system roof of its factory started operating in August, allowing the company to cut emissions of 34,450 kg of CO2. That’s the equivalent of planting more than 1,000 trees. The energy generated feeds the national network and is used for Pony’s in-house production (see drycleaning developments feature on page xx.). The project guarantees almost complete energy autonomy, providing for about 90% of consumption. Pony reckons it will soon be able to claim all its machines are being produced using solar energy. Like many textile care machine manufacturers, Pony has long concentrated on the environment. Its entire range of shirt finishers, for example, have been equipped with HARS, a patented hot air recovery system, which allows reduced energy consumption and finishing time. Trevil too has been busy. Its Treviform, designed to increase the productivity by allowing the fast finishing of complex garments, has just added a convenient 7.5kw built-in boiler, for all installations where central steam is not available. The new Treviform also has a touch-screen.
Many in Italy today talk of lessons learned during the pandemic, among them major textile care machine manufacturers. Warehouses, for example, have been revolutionised to optimise space and volume, exploiting height, reorganising aisles and reversing the ‘picking’ concept so that instead of warehouse operators dispatched to pick up the goods, the goods go directly to the warehouse worker. Pony has installed two vertical warehouses, 7m high, which will stock materials previously stacked in horizontal squares.
Renzacci too has revamped its warehouses, creating major space to stock components, some of which are outsourced and which were hit by supply chain/logistics issues at the height of the pandemic. Renzacci, which supplied the Italian Navy with its i-Genius 2.0 Ozone Cabinet to sanitise face masks manufactured and distributed by an industrial plant belonging to the Italian Defense in La Spezia, has always kept manufacturing firmly in Italy and its production lines remained intact throughout the crisis. But Marco Niccolini, general sales and marketing director, says warehouse reorganisation and keeping close large stocks of components makes for a fit future. It’s a trend that’s here to stay.
The Jensen Group’s communications chief, Gerda Jank, says she believes that in the future “all of us will be part of renewed companies, more conscious of their markets and of their structure”. Says Jank: “We’ve (all) been forced to check costs, procedures and strategies for surviving and all the lessons learned from this will stay, as a plus, for our next future, for a new era.”
She adds service providers learned similar lessons along with the need to diversify and be more flexible. Courage helps. A prime example is Amleto Preziosi and his sister, Sabrina who – undeterred by Covid – opened a 4,000 sq metre industrial laundry earlier this year. It is based in Guidonia, near Rome where 36 employees treat more than 300 quintals of linen per day. The New Ristolav Sr.l services the restaurant and healthcare sector. The Preziosis, who started their business from scratch in 1995, aged just 19 and 25 respectively in Tivoli near Rome, reportedly say that post-Covid, their next objective is to expand within the health care sector.
Now look to Sicily and Termini Imerese in Palermo province. There, industrial laundry Himera continued at full throttle throughout quarantines and lockdowns, servicing hospitals and nursing homes despite being forced to mothball its section dedicated to a decimated hospitality sector. Owner, Domenico Di Stefano is a laundry veteran with over 50 years in the family-owned business which started as a drycleaners. When a mammoth Fiat factory set up shop in town in 2011, the innovative Di Stefano family moved its laundry directly opposite. It never looked back. Now it has 30 employees in a 1500 sq metre unit handling around 430 tonnes of linen per year and a E2.5m annual turnover.
On a smaller scale and in Turin, the young Manuela Marra, is making her mark, despite pandemic blues. She inherited the drycleaning business from her mother but understood that to survive she had a lot to change. So, she followed the concept that cleaning is related to wellness and ‘greenness’ and re-opened under the name Lavanderia Clean Bio to convey a message of biodegradability, biocompatibility and sustainability. She reports doing well, aided by Renzacci’s bio drycleaning machine Excellence 35 and natural cleaning tactics. “Even during the pandemic we can and must innovate,” she says.
In Arezzo, Tuscany’s famous ‘Golden City’, the De Marchi husband and wife team, former bookshop owners, radically revamped their livelihoods and opened LavoBio to represent “the best balance possible” between cleanliness, health, efficiency and eco-friendliness. They lavishly and stylishly kitted the place out to promote ‘wellbeing’ for their customers who are now assured of natural, ecologically-sound, hypo-allergenic cleaning methods using only natural solvents and Renzacci’s Oceano system boasting water savings of between 40-60%, plus big energy savings.
While Italy waits for its massive hospitality sector to fully reopen and rediscover its mojo (it contributed 13% to GDP in 2019), textile care will have to look for other growth areas. Workwear, for example, is marginal compared to France or Germany, but pundits report encouraging analysis last year by Assosistema (Confindustria) showing growing demand for workwear laundering. Covid-19, again, has placed workwear firmly under the microscope where it is likely to stay, partly because Italian regulations state employers have to cover the cost of work uniform laundering if they are soiled by contact with harmful substances, powders, dangerous chemicals or biological agents. Such contact renders uniforms PPE. Self-service laundries are also rapidly transforming the market. There was low demand for them in the past as most Italians own a home washing machine. But they mushroomed around foreign tourism and students in the form of franchises and although currently many suffer in silent city centres due to Covid-19, they will reignite post-virus and around student residences and campsites.
Covid-19 has also significantly altered consumer behaviour. There’s been a low rate of e-commerce in Italy due to sociodemographic factors, supply limitations and low broadband penetration, less use of credit cards, concerns over internet security and a large, ageing population. Then there’s high transport costs, poor delivery infrastructure and fewer retailers with an online presence. But since the virus outbreak and quarantines, online shopping in Italy has surged, growing at triple digits. Nielsen reports online shopping turnover grew by a whopping 142% year on year in the week beginning 16 March alone. This could represent opportunities to technosavvy high street laundry entrepreneurs looking to introduce more trendy online services, say pundits.
Forecasts show Italy overtaking several European countries by 2024 with internet sales penetration reaching 10%, ahead of its wealthy northern neighbour Switzerland. Covid may have haunted Italy, but it’s not all bad news.
In Laterza in Taranto province, the Apulia region, Osmairm is a 50-year-old rehabilitation for people suffering debilitating diseases. Armonia handles the catering and laundry within the clinic – reportedly the largest such facility in Italy in terms of hourly productivity, processing over 2,000kg of linen and clothing per day. And that’s only half its total capacity! Both the laundry and catering sections were recently redesigned and completely kitted out by Electrolux Professional in a total revamp, with technical support.
The new 400 m2 ground floor Armonia laundry room also houses the production systems. An additional 400 m2 storeroom is on the first floor. The layout has physical partitioning between dirty” and “clean” areas and preliminary clothes sorting is aided by a microchip scanning system. Washing is performed by five Electrolux Professional barrier washer extractors with different production capacities, specifically 35kg, 70kg, 90kg and 110kg. The ‘clean’ area is equipped with five Electrolux Professional dryers (4 x 60 kg, 1 x 35 kg), an ironer, an ironing system consisting of two ironing tables, two presses and a multi-form finisher, as well as a towel folder. Delicate items go through Electrolux Professional’s lagoon wet cleaning system. Clean linen is folded and stacked, again using microchips, in a wrapping and cloakroom area before redistribution. “Electrolux Professional equipment has a very simple interface and this makes it easier for operators to move from one machine to another, as well as allowing us to optimise the workflow. The machines are ergonomic and make it possible to work in total safety,” Gianfranco Lopane, Armonia Immobiliare Srl’s CEO told LCNi.
After having experienced the deepest recession since the second world war, in 2021 the Italian economy will begin a fragile economic recovery, but a return to pre-crisis levels is unlikely before 2024, reports the Economist Intelligence Unit. Following an estimated fiscal deficit of 11% of GDP in 2020, the budgetary position will improve gradually in 2021-25, helping to reduce the public debt/GDP ratio to just below 155% in 2025. Support from EU institutions will mitigate financial stability risks. Unemployment in Italy could reach 11.1% in 2020, increasing to 11.3% in 2021, says Statista.