After a friend heard me wax eloquent about well-made cashmere sweaters, he suggested that I should meet this guy in Italy: Brunello Cucinelli, the CEO of an eponymously named company that makes some of the world’s finest cashmere. As I researched him, I learned his philosophy was as impressive as his sweaters. His company, which trades on the Milan Stock Exchange, is doing well: about 356 million euros in revenues in 2014. He gives 20 percent of his company’s profits to his charitable foundation in the name of “human dignity” and pays his workers wages that are 20 percent higher than the industry standard, mostly because it allows his company to encourage and continue the Italian craftsman traditions.
After an email introduction before a trip to Italy, I found myself at his door; the self-made billionaire greeted me as if I was his long-lost friend. We were supposed to meet for 30 minutes but ended up spending a few hours. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation, aided by an Italian translator. A longer version is available here.
Om Malik: I’ve been reading about you, and I have been fascinated by how you have conducted your business. Where did you find the inspiration to follow this path?
Brunello Cucinelli: From the teary eyes of my father. When we were living in the countryside, the atmosphere, the ambiance — life was good. We were just farmers, nothing special. Then he went to work in a factory. He was being humiliated and offended, and he was doing a hard job. He would not complain about the hardship or the tiny wages he received, but what he did say was, “What have I done evil to God to be subject to such humiliation?”
Basically, what is human dignity made of? If we work together, say, and, even with one look, I make you understand that you are worth nothing and I look down on you, I have killed you. But if I give you regards and respect — out of esteem, responsibility is spawned. Then out of responsibility comes creativity, because every human being has an amount of genius in them. Man needs dignity even more than he needs bread.
[In the past, people] didn’t know anything about their employer. My father or my brother didn’t know if their employer had a villa on the sea. Whereas with Google Maps, I can see where your house is. That’s where the world is becoming new.
Mankind is becoming more ethical, but it is not happening because man has decided to become better than he was 100 years ago. It’s because we know we live in a glass house where everybody can see.
So you are in favor of radical transparency?
Yes, I am in favor of that, because that’s the way to become authentic and credible.
I wonder how you feel it all fits into today’s reality. Now every person edits the story they tell about themselves, carefully ensuring what the world looks at — whether it’s over Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
I want to take a step backward. Who remembers the last email they sent yesterday? No one. Or the last text message. Emperor Hadrian used to say, “The daily business, the daily life, the daily chores, kills the human being.”
I’m not interested in daily chores. We have now swapped information for knowledge, which is not the same thing. I do not want to know. I’m not online. I don’t even have a computer.
I am a great supporter of memory. If I remember things, I do not need to go back and check and revise. In this company, you cannot send emails after 5:30 PM, when the company closes for the evening. The day after, when you turn up for work, what are you like? You are a still person. You are better.
You run a business that is across the universe, across the planet, different time zones, different people. Isn’t that more of a 24/7 endeavor?
No, it’s not 24/7, because here in the company, you start at 8 AM, and at 5:30 PM you are forbidden to work any further. No group mailing. Why must a single email be read by ten different people, unless it’s the ten people who are interested in that specific issue? In order to disperse responsibility? The first time I was in New York, we had a tiny office, and they were emailing across it. I said, “No way. Just get up and go to your neighbor and ask them one thing, in one split second, in person.” First of all, you look me in the eye. You smell me, my presence. Maybe I take the opportunity to ask you about your family. Don’t you feel better than if you get an email? Maybe I smile and you feel even better.
Here, no meetings with mobile phones. No one is allowed to bring them into the meeting room. You must look me in the eye. You must know things by heart. You must know all of your business with a one to two percent error rate. It is also training for your mind. It is also a question of respect, because I have never called someone on a Saturday or a Sunday. No one is allowed to do so. We must discover this, because if individuals rest properly, then it is better.
Is it fair to say that you believe in technology as a tool and not in us becoming slaves to it?
Yes. I have a phone. I think I receive ten calls a day, because they know that I only want to receive the important ones. We must really manage this kind of reality. We must rule it somehow.
You dropped out of engineering school to design cashmere sweaters. What was the attraction to cashmere?
You never throw away a cashmere pullover. The idea of manufacturing something that you never scrap, you never throw away — I liked it very much. Mind you, I had no money in my pocket at that time. Absolutely nothing. I had this idea of building a company with one or two people and giving dignity to work.
The idea of “brand” is kind of amorphous, and you don’t really know who stands behind that brand.
I wanted the brand to have my face. I wanted the product to convey the culture, life, lifestyle, dignity of work. I wanted a profit with dignity. Because the press all talk about the moral ethics of profit. Why can’t we have a dignified profit then?
Would you buy something from someone if you knew that the person, by making this product, has harmed or damaged mankind? No, you would not buy it. You wouldn’t even buy it if you knew that the company had staggering profits. Our cashmere blazer costs $3,000 retail, but the profit must be dignified. It needs to respect the raw material producer, then the artisans, then those working for the company. The consumer also needs to be respected. Everything must be balanced.
We need a new form of capitalism, a contemporary form of capitalism. I would like to add “humanistic” to that equation.
There is a big boom in internet-based fashion brands. Do you think that trend has the ability to influence the world of fashion and clothing?
Yes, absolutely. There’s luxury, absolute luxury, aspirational luxury and accessible luxury. Luxury is a handcrafted good or a place that is beautiful, well-made, exclusive. It must be exclusive; otherwise it’s not luxury. It’s nearly always something beautiful, well-made, true, and also useful and fair.
But what is this thing, “accessible luxury”? The two words don’t go together. Absolute luxury must be exclusive too. Everything must be balanced. You made it. The raw material supplier, did they earn the fair amount? Good. Do the people who work for the company earn fair wages? Yes. Has the company made a fair profit or an excessive profit? You buy this product and you feel better, you feel at peace, because you bought a product that, although very expensive, there is work and respect for the work that goes into the product. I do not buy a specific product if I know you have made preposterous amounts of profit out of it. That’s exactly where, in my view, the new capitalism lies.
You once said that running a company is simple. I wanted to know more about that. I want to learn the business principles that other people, other entrepreneurs, can learn from you.
You must believe in the human being. Let’s say you have a company with 1,000 people. Maybe we were told that there are only two or three genius people in the 1,000. But I think that if you have 1,000 people, you have 1,000 geniuses. They’re just different kinds of genius and a different degree of intensity. We hold a meeting here with all the staff every two months. Everybody takes part in it. Even the person with the humblest tasks knows exactly what was the latest shop we opened. Everything is based on esteem, and esteem then generates creativity.
How do you reconcile the need of the stock market with your outlook on the world?
I’m an industrialist. I don’t know anything about finance. If you invest in me, you invest in an industry. I like it even better if you call it an artisanal industry. As for my business plans, I have three-year business plans and 30-year business plans but also three-centuries business plans.
I’m fascinated that you have such deep passion for philosophy. I wonder how it has helped you as a businessperson.
In everything, really. For example, take Marcus Aurelius, the emperor. In any possible mood that you might be in, you read a sentence by him and you feel better. Any philosopher helps you to raise your head and the world will look better. Respect the human being, and that will be better. Hadrian the emperor said, “I never met anyone who after being paid a compliment did not feel better.”
The true way to nurture your soul is philosophy. The true malaise of the human being — no matter whether Italian, American, Chinese — is the malaise of your soul, the uneasiness of your soul. This is stronger now than when my father was young or my grandfather.
I would like to try to somehow cure this malaise of the soul, even with the young people working for my company, because at the end of the day, you can be wealthy and still feel the same way. I know many people who own a fortune. The other day, a very loaded person said to me, “I’d love to be more serene.” This is true for rich people, poor people.
There are three things you cannot buy. Fitness: You have to keep fit, whether you’re rich or not. Diet: You cannot pay someone to be on a diet for you. I think that diet is the biggest sacrifice in my life. Then, looking after your soul. No one can possibly treat your soul but you yourself. This is something you can do through culture and philosophy.
Our entire society is rooted around the idea of more, and longer has become the measure of success. How does a young founder or a young startup measure what you’re suggesting?
So, I am 60. I have decided to work seven hours instead of eight, because I’m starting to be old. I have not reduced the rapidity, not by one split second. Since I am older, though, I get tired and I need rest.
We went public, then all the banks came here, we were working until midnight the first days. There was one hour with just a sandwich, one hour coffee, one hour discussion. I said, “From tomorrow, everything changes.” So everybody turns up at 8 AM, and at 5:30 PM everybody leaves. That’s the only time we have available. I do not want to see any time wasted. I do not want during the day to see funny emails or joke emails. So we were able to go public without being overwhelmed.
During the road show, the banks said to me, “You are supposed to meet eight to nine people in one-to-one meetings a day.” I said, “You must be crazy!” Am I supposed to meet someone for 45 minutes, and then another 45 minutes with someone else, then at 2 PM, I don’t know what I said or didn’t say? I said, “No, that’s not my way. I’m meeting five, tops, very focused, that’s it.”
I guess you’re not on Twitter. [Silence.]
No, I understand. You see, we can make things concise, and we have time for our family. When I say family, I mean your time, your private time. So tonight, at half-past five, that’s it, I’m finished.
I want fewer interruptions in my day. I have eliminated a lot of things from my life. I’m on a declining scale of wanting things.
A 58-year-old man committed suicide, a great Italian manager, I think last year, or a couple of years ago. He wrote, “I spent a whole life running, chasing work, without realizing, at all, of the great ideals, of great values of life.” This is a question of balance. Those who come to me and say, “You know, I work 15 hours a day,” I say, “I am not interested.”
This is an edited transcript of a longer interview Malik conducted with Cucinelli on pi.co, a site hosting deep conversations about “transformation through technology as observed by those who are living through it.”