Behind every collection that takes to the runway is a team of craftsmen and industrialists that provide designers the support to create their vision. More often than not, that vision starts at the foundation of our industry, fabric. And for generations now, the go-to for some of the finest fabrics in the world has been a mill several hours north of Milan, in the mountainous region of Piemonte, REDA.
For four generations now, the BOTTO POALA family has led REDA to stay at the forefront of manufacturing. We spoke to the fourth generation CEO of REDA, ERCOLE BOTTO POALA, about his initiation into the family business, producing 7 million meters per year, how his family survived line-ups by a Nazi firing squad, NASA, and forward-thinking business models.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Thanks for taking the time to share your take on the evolution of the fabric industry. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to confirm some rumors about what happened to your region and family during World War II.
Challenging times. During the Second World War, the textile industry was one of the most important. The industrial revolution was born here, with the first mechanical spinning machine in 1815, and the textile industry in Italy became very powerful.
During the war, our area had a number of fractions, from Fascism to Partisans, and our family worked to run the company while shooting went on from both sides. My family was quite powerful at the time and lived together at our house that was finished around the end of 1800. At one point the Nazis came seeking to gain control of the company and stormed our house, harassing my grandmother, who at that time had six children and a seventh on the way. They gathered my grandfather, uncle and his brothers and put them against a wall to shoot them, but the machine gun jammed so they sent for a machine gun in another village. While they were getting it, the local villagers snuck my family out of where the Nazis were holding them.
My grandfather was never the same after that day. He was so shocked that he aged and passed away early, at the age of 60. My uncle, who was 18 years old when my grandfather passed, had to run the company. After that the family never lived at the house together again, as my grandmother prevented it. She didn’t want us all in one place. Today we use it as our corporate headquarters.
Heart-wrenching. Handing off a business at any stage can be a challenge, let alone at 18. It is so rare in the U.S. for a fourth generation business to be thriving. Can you share how your family has managed to maintain the company across generations?
By the third generation, which includes my father and his four brothers, the family recognized it wasn’t possible for every family member to join the business, as it isn’t big enough to support everyone. So they set a rule that each family could introduce one member of the next generation into the business. Thus, my father and his brothers could each propose offspring to join the business for a yearlong trial. After one year, the other four uncles decided if they could join the business for the rest of their life.
We also use the Disney model in the company, meaning we never team up parent and child, it is always uncle and nephew or niece. It’s impossible for the parent to be an honest judge of their child because it’s either too tough or too sweet.
Did you grow up knowing you were going to be in the family business?
Not at all! I didn’t consider it until I was 24 years old. I was the classic child of rich people, without any vision of the future. I was enjoying life and didn’t care much about studying. Then my life changed when I went into the Italian military service, serving as part of the United Nations peace missions in Mozambique.
I started to understand that if I didn’t wake up and be competitive every morning, I’d be wasting my life. So when I returned, I asked to join the business to add value to what my family did.
I had to pitch my father, which was tough because my sister is very smart and talented. She was the perfect student, went to university and works hard. She is very successful and at the time my father thought that only men should join the business. Today, obviously, we don’t think that, but I was grateful for his support because he’s a tough man.
In that first year, I lost 9 kilos. I felt a lot of pressure to show everybody that I wasn’t the same guy that they knew. I started out as a designer and it was a great 10 years between design and going to Australia and New Zealand, where we have three sheep farms to develop the wool.
After design I wanted to learn more about our customers so I went to Boyds Philadelphia to work both on my English and to learn first-hand about our customer. I worked there for 4 months and learned that the fabric, while important, was secondary to the needs of the customer. Also, I learned to sell.
When I came back, I asked to design in the morning and work as a sales manager in the afternoon. They gave me Japan because I was able to reply in my terrible English. Sometimes the Japanese English was even worse than mine so we understood each other very well! [Laughs] As a result of flying to Japan, I started to see China as a potential market. At first my family said, “China? China is a competitor.” I said, “I think it’s an opportunity.” Every country when they start to grow rich needs luxury, and luxury is made in Italy. And it worked, as China became our third largest market a few years back.
From sales and design I transitioned to be CEO in 2005 and have been growing it ever since.
Your facilities are quite impressive and extremely modern. How has technology played a role in your evolution?
We’ve always invested in being updated and we’re one of the few companies in the world where suppliers can come to study new technology. We learned to make those investments from our family. Even NASA recognized this and has selected our materials to use in the space program. However, I see another technological change on the horizon, from both consumers and those serving them. Yes, H&M and Zara have changed the game, and we work with them as well as with others like Ralph Lauren and Zegna. But the globalization of information and shopping patterns is leading to the new way of doing business.
Until years ago, the brand told you what to buy. Today, it’s you that decides what to buy. I see Bonobo’s, Trunk Club, Indochino, and J. Hilburn as just a few new American labels that have a modern model of business. They grow double digit every year, offering full retail price points. I think for men’s suits or even for women’s wear, the fashion business is going to change and we see it as an opportunity.
We are helping those brands tell stories around the fabric, from our heritage to sustainability, to our product being used in space, to being made in Italy. We can even work with them on traceability to share which farm the wool comes from, which all goes into the storytelling via video and digital materials.
We also continue to foster new talents like Cadet in New York and numerous other young designers. I believe that if we invest in relationships with new designers, we can be closer to the future, and REDA is always about being a part of the future.