“I go to Silicon Valley a couple of times a year to see what they are up to,” says Ercole Botto Poala, at the helm of the Reda company, in Valle Mosso, which has been weaving yarns since 1865. “Here we are still talking about innovation – while what you need is to be disruptive: to come up with an idea that destroys the original model. I’m even willing to invest millions in your project if it’s disruptive, but if it’s innovative I’m not interested.”
Botto Poala has never strayed too far from Valle Mosso, only moving to Biella for “sentimental reasons. This place saw the birth of the country’s industrial revolution. The first machine that arrived in Italy in the late nineteenth century was a spinning wheel that Pietro Sella installed in his factory five hundred meters from here. The head of his spinning department was called Carlo Reda and would soon found his own company. In 1919, his son Giovanni Reda had no heirs and decided to sell.” Among the clauses in the contract of sale, he imposed the name Successori Reda (Successors of Reda) – “because who could have known whether those young Bottos would be able to make cloth in the proper way? The public had to know that it was no longer a Reda producing those cloths.”
To produce wool you start by selecting the raw material. The fleece is combed, sorted and collected into tops, which are transferred to the dyeing department, where the wool meets the color. Once dry, the tops move on to the spinning department: combing machines, melange machines, doublers and rings select the wool further. From the top we move to a single, long, thin thread. This thread, brought together with the others in the twisting department, is laid parallel, stretched and worked to produce the warp – the set of threads that form the longitudinal part of the fabric and which, when intertwined with the weft, bring the actual fabric to life. At the end, finishing, to improve the stability, appearance and softness of the fabric.
“When I made my first trips to China, in the early 2000s, there were six hundred million well-to-do consumers – Americans, Europeans, Japanese. Wealth is the worst enemy of sustainability because it leads to waste. Within a few years, the number of consumers has doubled – while the quantities of raw materials have always remained the same.” Sustainability is the path the Botto Poalas took in 2004 to be disruptive, when they obtained EMAS certification, which they have retained ever since – the only woolen mill in the world to do so. A turning point in terms of sustainability came in 2009, when the plant was equipped with more than a hundred photovoltaic panels to reduce electricity consumption and CO2 emissions – which dropped by 440 tons per year – and an agreement was entered into to purchase raw materials exclusively from farms guaranteeing animal welfare. In 2018, the company set up the Reda Sustainability Award, to reward the most sustainable farm supplying them with wool – in New Zealand and Australia –, while this year has seen the drafting of the Environmental Product Declaration, a protocol that certifies the scale and impact of the company’s consumption in making its own products. Keeping in line with company trends, Ercole drives round in a Tesla, an electric car.
Being disruptive in the age of offshoring also means choosing to stay. In 1968, a flood destroyed the Reda factories. No one ever considered moving, not even in more recent years. “We could have moved twenty kilometers and saved ten percent, to southern Italy saving twenty, to Romania saving up to fifty percent. We were also contacted by the Chinese government, which would have paid us to move production there. We decided to head a couple of kilometers further north from where we were, to a mountainous area where there was nothing and where we even had to bring water. We wanted to stay here, where we started out, where people feel a sense of belonging to the local area and have the ability to work in the textile industry in their DNA.”
To get to Valle Mosso you need to change trains in Novara. You continue on a non-electrified line, travelled by diesel trains that have to stop to fuel up. Italian wool-making heritage is encapsulated in this town that shares a name with its valley. We meet Ercole in what was the family villa until 1943, when the Nazis went in to look for Ercole’s grandfather and great-uncle to shoot them – as luck would have it, there was no machine gun in the village and they managed to escape while the Germans went to retrieve it from the neighboring village. From that moment onwards, Ercole’s grandmother no longer wanted to set foot there. The villa, which once housed a large marble staircase, was renovated in the 1970s and is now the home to the offices.
“I repeated two years of high school – I liked it so much that I didn’t want to finish. They failed me and as a punishment, during the summer, my father made me clean the company bathrooms,” says Ercole. The change came during the first year at university, with the call-up card for compulsory military service. “I forgot to request a postponement for study reasons. When I got to the barracks, I took the chance to volunteer for a peacekeeping mission in Mozambique, where the civil war had just ended. At first, I thought of it as a trip, but when I got there, the shock of seeing hunger, violence and death up close changed me. There, I realized I had to deserve the fortune that fate had bestowed on me.”
Ercole represents the fourth Botto Poala generation, and he wants make sure we know it: “No one knows yet what the fourth generation is doing, statistically it’s still too insignificant – he smiles. Seventy-five percent of family businesses do not survive to the third, which on the contrary did well with us.” The third generation consisted of five families. To ensure the company’s survival, the rule was established that only one child per family would enter the company, and that each would work not with his own father, but with one of his uncles – something they called the Walt Disney rule. After a year, the uncles decided whether the nephew in question could join the company permanently.
“In 2005, my cousins and I felt we were adult enough to have a more defined role in the company. We went to our parents with a fake Cambridge statistic, according to which becoming an entrepreneur when aged over forty brings down success rates. We asked for the reins to be able to take charge of Successori Reda.” For a year and a half, Ercole’s father did not show up at the company. He wanted the change in management to be clear. “To be an entrepreneur you need passion, it’s a masochistic pleasure – capital investments are required in the face of low marginality and high risk. You need determination, especially today. My grandfather competed with his neighbor, my father with the competitors from Biella and Como, today the game is global.”
For the fifth Botto Poala generation, the old recruitment rule will no longer be valid. The theme is meritocracy – “with a total amnesty on the scholastic achievements of the previous generation. I would be a terrible mentor. I can teach a working model, but digital transformation has changed everything. The fifth generation will have to study, gain experience abroad and come back with a new mental structure. In ten years’ time, Reda will have to be completely different from how it is today. I don’t know how. Everything is changing too fast to just ‘innovate’. What could I teach the next managing director apart from the old model?”