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Embedding Innovation in a 350-Year-Old Mill

Through the diverse experiences of three of its employees, BoF discovers how the company culture at Italian mill Vitale Barberis Canonico fuses centuries-old tradition with an openness to innovation.
Vitale Barberis Canonico is one of the oldest fabric mills in Italy | Source: Courtesy
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BIELLA, Italy — Continuously producing textiles since 1663, Vitale Barberis Canonico is one of the oldest fabric mills in Italy. Indeed, throughout the industrial revolution, the unification of Italy and the globalisation of trade, the company has continued to create high quality fabric. Still family-run, the current CEO is a member of the 13th generation of the Barberis Canonico family actively engaged in the business which employs 440 people across two sites, servicing some of the world's most prestigious fashion businesses.

Today, the Vitale Barberis Canonico distribution network is highly international, with client accounts in over 90 countries. This has successfully buttressed the business against slow growth in the Italian textile sector, which continues to successfully offset weaker demand in Europe with new business in emerging markets and Asia. In China, demand rose 23.6% in the last year alone.

To effectively tap the varied and complex opportunities ahead, Vitale Barberis Canonico is fusing its heritage and centuries-old expertise with new technologies, innovative strategies, and new ideas from a younger generation of employees. BoF sat down with three of its employees — from human resources, fabric technology and commercial relations — to discover the inside story of how one Italian institution is embracing its future while respecting its past.

Vitale Barberis Canonico's Human Resources Manager Stefano D’Agostin | Source: Courtesy

Stefano D'Agostin, Human Resources Manager
D'Agostin joined Vitale Barberis Canonico in 2001 and has overseen a generational shift in the company's management, focusing on maintaining established traditions through an open-minded approach to new ways of working.

BoF: How would you describe the employee culture at VBC?

Vitale Barberis Canonico’s strong culture stems from our location and our history. Our DNA is all about being solid, reliable and professional, and continuing our tradition for producing fine textiles. The town of Biella has been a centre for textiles since Roman times, and the historical traditions of this area have been passed down from generation to generation. Not only is wool in the DNA of the people of Pratrivero (the small village near to Biella where the factory is located), but practically every family in the area has a member who works for Vitale Barberis Canonico — we are at the heart of our community. We have never in our history planned to produce garments, only textiles, and it’s something we are very good at, so we want to continue to be recognised for this to ensure the future of the company for generations to come.

We have never in our history planned to produce garments, only textiles, and it's something we are very good at.

BoF: How does the company’s heritage influence its operations today?

I feel like I’m part of a large family here. I’ve worked at Vitale Barberis Canonico for nearly 20 years now. When I initially joined, I was impressed with the approach of the previous CEO, Alberto Barberis Canonico, particularly concerning his long-term view for the future of the company. For me this vision has always been about finding a compromise between the value of our past heritage and the challenges of the future, by hiring great talent and ensuring that we listen to and learn from the current generation of employees, for example when it comes to embracing new technologies or alternative approaches.

BoF: How does the company approach employee development?

When I was promoted to HR manager over a decade ago, the CEO, Alessandro Barberis Canonico, and I decided to put together a strategy for the future the company and its employees and to share this with everyone in the business, in the form of a handbook called 'Being a Manager in the New Vitale Barberis Canonico'. It forms a sort of benchmark for the company, with new ways of doing things, and new ways of teaching and learning. I am proud to have been involved in the process, because this project is still in use today.

BoF: How are new technologies impacting your career at Vitale Barberis Canonico?

One of the main functions of my role is to determine how many people to assign to a process, and for how many years. This planning is very much influenced by new technologies and machinery, but also demands a certain amount of intuition. We have to be dynamic and open to change if different processes come along.

The key to evolving a company like this is ensuring that we are constantly challenging ourselves – from the individual level all the way to our overarching company strategy – and we all have to balance our personal projects and internal goals with those of the company as a whole.

Vitale Barberis Canonico's Sales Export Assistant Silvia Alba | Source: Courtesy

Silvia Alba, Sales Export Assistant  

Having recently graduated from Turin university in modern languages, Alba is part of a new generation of employees at Vitale Barberis Canonico who are empowered to shape the company’s future by finding purpose in their work.

BoF: What motivated you to join Vitale Barberis Canonico?

What attracted me was the brand’s history and the focus on doing one thing – great textiles – well. I also love working for a company that cares deeply about the impact of its products. For example, our fabrics are all made here in Italy, which is very important in terms of carbon footprint. We have all sorts of systems that safeguard the environment, for example we have a complex water depuration system in the plant that contributes to improved local conditions. We have a big team working on this aspect of the business, and it’s clear that Vitale Barberis Canonico cares so much about its territory – not only in the sense of its employees and the company’s philosophy, but also the respect that it has for our mountains and our water.

BoF: How has the company developed you as an employee?

The company has paid for my German classes for the last 18 months, in order for me to be able to eventually approach this market as well. I’m a languages graduate and I still love learning new ways of communicating. I graduated in Arabic and Spanish, then I learned English and a bit of French, and now German, Hopefully I will learn more — it’s great to know that a company is investing its time and money in me and wants to see me develop.

BoF: What does the Vitale Barberis Canonico culture give you at work?

The company has allowed me a lot of independence and autonomy. The way they operate now is that they really trust and teach younger employees to take on bigger projects. I’ve learned so much in such a short space of time. When I started here, I was closely trained for the first few months, but then the person I was replacing retired. I had to develop my job on my own, without 24/7 control. This approach really helped me. There’s still always someone to check in with, but that does not mean that you cannot operate on your own.

Vitale Barberis Canonico's Chemical Engineer Andrea Mercantili | Source: Courtesy

Andrea Mercantili, Chemical Engineer

Vitale Barberis Canonico hired Mercantili in 2017 to launch a new testing and research laboratory, positioned at the forefront of the company's innovation and experimentation efforts.

BoF: How would you describe the employee culture at Vitale Barberis Canonico?

We are very much a family here, but like all families we’re not afraid to disagree sometimes. Everyone here is of a similar mindset, and we are really honest with each other. We all try to interconnect and solve problems together, it’s a very supportive atmosphere. While it’s common that a team all have the same goals, we actually also work together to overcome any challenges. For example, although my role here is as a chemical engineer, to find new technologies around wool and to test them, I also have past experience in parallel departments. This means that, for example, the dyeing and spinning teams can come to me to help them solve a problem relating to raw materials.

How does the company’s history influence your day-to-day operations?

When I started here, I worked alongside Alberto [Barberis Canonico, former CEO] for two hours most days, and I am still learning everything I need to through his historical lens. From improving the quality of the yarns to integrating systems across the company, we as a team had a very informed starting point, and a clear goal of finding new technologies from around the world and adapting them to our wool. We started all of our development and laboratory work from zero, and this has enabled me to develop tools that help the company, but also that the wider industry can use to improve itself. One of my key responsibilities is to continually source and research the best raw materials from across the world, and then to test them extensively to determine their suitability for use in our textiles.

What excites you about the future of your role at Vitale Barberis Canonico?

When I joined, it was from a plastics company, where I worked for six months after studying at university. I originally moved because I preferred to work with something natural like wool, so as to minimise my company’s effect on the environment. My role at Vitale Barberis Canonico is to discover the future of textile technology. The projects that I’m working on are all about developing better yarns, which will ultimately enable us to solve production problems, improve quality and boost productivity. For me, it’s enormously exciting to be working on projects like these, that are about ensuring the future of a company with such a long history, as well as pushing the industry forwards and contributing to a better planet.

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This is a sponsored feature paid for by Vitale Barberis Canonico as part of a BoF Careers partnership. To explore careers at Vitale Barberis Canonico, please click here.

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