What comes to mind when someone talks about authentic Italian manufacturing and a nearly century-old tradition associated with it?
One possible answer to this question is Stella, an Italian company born from an intuition of Gino Sgarbi and Girolamo Chiozzi. In 1924, sandwiched between the economic crises caused by two world wars, these two entrepreneurs decided to create a brand which became a guarantee of quality.
Their story begins in Ferrara, a town of about 140,000 inhabitants located in Emilia-Romagna, a province nestled in Lombardia, the breadbasket of Italy. Manufacturing and history run very deep here. The highest government-certified appellations of balasamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, and lambrusco all hail from the area. And Ferrara itself lies on the south banks of the river Po, which besides being the lifeline of the area, also served as a defacto line of civilization when Caesar was busy conquering Italy for the Romans.
During the Renaissance, under the rule of the Este family, the city was transformed into one of the most important artistic centers of Europe, hosting poets Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, but also artists such as Andrea Mantegna and Titian. In 1484, Duke Ercole I d’Este commissioned the Herculean Addition, one of the first examples of rational urban planning.
The twenty years that elapsed between the two world wars was characterized by a profound economic and social crisis that saw the dramatic rise of fascism. Liberal interventions in the economy eventually brought about an increase in agricultural and industrial production. Taxes were eased on businesses, and state monopolies such as insurance and telecommunications were privatized.
In this milleau, Stella began to bring forward a singular idea of craftsmanship modeled according to the passion and the ideals of its founders. Following WWII, the company came under the diretion of the founders’ two children Abdon Sgarbi and Franco Chiozzi.
In 1952, they added “Metallurgical Lux” to the Stella brand, taking advantage of stainless steel products for the kitchen. The economic boom following the war profoundly influenced the lifestyle of Italians, who began to buy better products needed for everyday life. The house and the kitchen became so the goal of Stella. The company’s production cycle took a marked approach away from mechanization, creating a process that certified craftsmanship and gave attention to every single product that left the factory floor.
Despite this, the company is composed of only twelve people, and their goods are therefore limited to a particular slice of the market. Their production changes monthly depending on demand, especially from the foreign market. Two thousand pieces per month is an average quantity. (Think of a Chinese company that produces the same number, but almost daily). What does this mean? Only one thing: quality.
We posed some questions to Abdon Sgarbi’s daughter Marina, who has directed the company since 2006.
What does Stella do different and how does this translate to quality?
In our shop there are no strict deadlines to meet. Our employees know more than the amount needed to achieve quality, and for us the quality is inherent not only in the finished product, but in all the individual parts that comprise it. Our manufacturing process starts from processing raw material, in our case stainless steel, which comes in coils and plates. Once we’ve acheived the desired shape, there are a number of small jobs, mostly manual, for the finished product. At the end of the production cycle, products arrive on the desks of the assembly line here. Every detail is carefully inspected, and even the slightest imperfection is highlighted until the product is revised until obtaining quality typical of Stella.
What are the basic conditions necessary to carry on a manufacturing company that focuses on craftsmanship and authenticity?
The real underlying condition necessary for a manufacturing company like Stella is to believe in the value of their product. A value that does not stop at the product itself, but extends to the value of the experienced and capable workers, with their knowledge that allows us to achieve the best possible product.
How do you generate interest in your products and stay competitive in the face of lower-quality foreign competition?
We have enough money to enable us to advertise on a large scale, including celebrity testimonials. The best advertising is, therefore, our own product: the characteristics of quality and finish make it immediately recognizable as a product of higher quality than those imported. The important thing is that Stella products be displayed in stores, so that customers can compare them with others. Once the customer has purchased a Stella, we assist our customers with any questions or simple curiosities. We also offer a lifetime warranty, and execute any repairs with pride, making replacements of parts to all of our products, even the most dated.
What do you teach your apprentices and workers?
Our colleagues with more experience pass on their knowledge in a very natural way. People also have the opportunity to grow because our environment is small and family-oriented. Our technical manager, for example, worked with us for fifteen years, starting as a cleaning worker. Over the years, he demonstrated a continuing interest in every stage of production, including design, and today is the contact person at my side, not only in the organization of production, but especially in the design and prototyping of all new products. What I try to teach those who work with me is above all respect for the work of all colleagues, because a quality product is a combination of all stages of production, from initial molding up to marketing. Quality is the result of work of a group of people.
Tell us about the family history behind Stella.
“The Factory”, as we call it, was founded by my grandfather, Gino, and his partner, Mr. Chiozzi in 1924. My father, Abdon, had been working with my grandfather for eighteen years, while also studying at university. My mom, my sister, and her husband have also worked here for thirty years. My dad came to the factory every day for 80 years, and believe me, I’ve seen the work involved, both the pleasant things that those less pleasant.
After school, I would go to the factory, and after doing my homework, I would help in the assembly department and prepare the coffee. I also listened to conversations about what new products do, how to vary the production cycle, how to increase sales in a given market – in short, I was given a full immersion.
After graduation, it only seemed natural, after a year of work at the University of Bologna and at an accounting firm in Bologna, to return to work at the factory.
Tell us about your role at Stella.
My company is microscopic, so I still represent the “old farmer.” I am very proud of the work of my team, all of them. Being alone at the helm, I can see close up their efforts to get the quality product we demand that distinguishes us, to give our customers the best service both pre and post sales, and to give assistance to the consumer. I know how much work each of them does, and I want to do everything possible to maintain production at Ferrara, continuing a centuries-old tradition of manufacturing that is disappearing in Italy.
How is a new product born?
All our products are born in our technical department. My father was very good at drawing and has created products that are still best sellers. These days, our technical manager, Alessandro, is much better at that than me. It’s mainly because of him that we owe all the latest Stella products. Nevertheless, creating a new product is the thing I like most. Starting from an idea and then printing, welding, and assembling the material up to the desired shape always excites me. The birth of a new product is always a moment of euphoria. It’s very cooperative, with every suggestion, idea, and criticism always carefully considered and welcome. And the quarrels arising from them – “Move the handle over one centimeter!” “No, I do not understand anything shifted by 1.2 centimeters!” — are always a beautiful memory that make us laugh out loud.