'Made in Italy' is a powerful brand but Irish firms can sock it to local companies
With its glamorous image, Italy is a country known for its diverse and majestic landscape, steeped in heritage and culture. It is a country divided into 20 regions, each of which has unique traditions and customs.
Some regions have acquired 'special status', granting them independence from the central government both in financial and political matters. The result is an extremely diverse geo-economic landscape. An organisation doing business in Italy will find differences among regions in infrastructure, sectors, and even employment laws.
For Irish companies intent on winning business, there is one clear target where it makes sense to start. The Lombardy region, and its economic centre Milan, are the beating heart of the Italian economy, accounting for some 20pc of GDP. Other hotspots include Piedmont for aerospace and automotive; RegioEmilia for food production; Lazio, and its capital Rome, for the mixed bag of industries that are located close to the seat of government.
Italians are hugely patriotic. 'Made in Italy' is a powerful brand, so launching a foreign consumer product here can prove extremely challenging, unless you have very deep pockets or a clearly differentiated niche offering. The construction and public procurement markets also tend to be dominated by Italian players.
However, there are opportunities for Irish companies in almost every other sector of the economy from medtech, engineering and cleantech to fintech and ICT. Italians are fantastically entrepreneurial and will be drawn to intellectual property (IP) that can open up a new business opportunity or give them an edge over competitors. Not surprisingly then, most Irish companies who are successful in this market are in the B2B space, offering a high level of IP, integrated into a product or solution sold under a local Italian name.
The world's eighth-largest economy, Italy is home to major global heavyweights such as Fiat (part of FCA now), Lavazza; Gucci; Olivetti; ENEL; Generali, Ferrero and Zanussi. So there are plenty of opportunities to sell to the global names. Yet the country also has the EU's highest proportion of SMEs. This fragmentation means that if you're willing to burn shoe leather, you can tap into a market comprising a myriad of smaller manufacturers.
Of course, there are certain do's and don'ts to doing business here and the day-to-day cultural business etiquette must be heeded. For instance, men wearing socks that expose naked leg beneath their trousers are a no-no for business meetings. Likewise, short-sleeved shirts.
Also, don't try to work out the Italian legal system on your own; get the right advice or face losing time and money back-pedalling.
And remember, while Italians enjoy lamenting the standard of their public services, don't be tempted to join in. For one, they regard complaining about their country as a birthright. Secondly, they are usually wrong - their healthcare service, for example, is ranked one of the best worldwide by the World Health Organisation.
If you want to win business here, you'll need good Italian language skills. This is a tactile market, where it's important to meet regularly with customers. Enterprise Ireland's Milan office can help you plan your entry in stages, gradually moving to opening your own sales office when the order book justifies it.
Some 40 Enterprise Ireland client companies have done just that and are reaping the rewards. Italy is Ireland's eighth-largest market worldwide and our fourth-largest for internationally traded services. So pull up your socks, and see you in Milan.
Paul Maguire is Enterprise Ireland Manager for Italy, Morocco and Algeria
Sunday Indo Business