The Fucecchio, Florence, company was founded in 1957 by Guglielmo Testai and is now in its third generation. The great commitment to sustainability
More than 65 years of history and the many entrepreneurial challenges overcome, have allowed it to remain at the top of the tanning market. It is a success story that characterizes the Vecchia Toscana Group, founded in 1957 in Ponte a Cappiano, in the municipality of Fucecchio (Florence), by Guglielmo Testai. But it is also a fine family history, now in its third generation: the current CEO, Valerio Testai, is the son of the founder Guglielmo, and today he has been joined in the business for just under a decade by his son Francesco Testai, who entered the company at the end of 2014, after graduating in management engineering.
Today Gruppo Vecchia Toscana Spa is a leading company in Italy and worldwide in the production of quality leathers for leather goods, footwear and clothing. Thanks to a wealth of expertise and the substantial resources it allocates each year to research and development activities, the Tuscan company is able to best meet the requests of the most demanding clients present in the fashion and luxury sector, offering a completely Made in Italy product, created through a perfect combination of craftsmanship and technology. Guiding us in this “story” are Valerio and Francesco, whom we interviewed in mid-May at the Fucecchio plant.
“My father Guglielmo,” began Mr. Valerio, “founded a company together with his brothers; it was a courageous challenge because in the mid-1950s the economic boom had not yet begun and leather products were reserved for a privileged elite. Like the majority of new entrepreneurs at the time, my father had been a factory worker in order to survive and help his family in the years following the end of the war. He took the plunge with a capital of about 250 euros now, a single barrel and four to five employees, but from there a steady growth began. Starting out with the name Conceria Guglielmo Testai, the company was later renamed Vecchia Toscana, after its most successful product, a vegetable-tanned and hand-buffed leather, which opened the door to exports in the late 1960s.”
When did the adventure in the company begin for you?
“It was a youthful “mission”: I joined in 1981, at the age of 20, after graduating from accounting school: I wanted to enrol in the faculty of economics and commerce, but in those days, university was still something for the select few, and my father wanted very much for me to enter the tannery with him. A few years earlier, in 1978, the current plant had been built, an expensive investment for those times but forward-thinking, with an eye to the future, and well studied in detail. At the end of the 1970s there were 120 employees, and there was a lot of work in the fashion market especially with footwear. It was a time of great development of companies, mostly family businesses, with a very prosperous market, we had many customers in Germany and Italy.”
In what capacity did you enter the workforce?
“After graduation I went to England for eight months to study the English, as we had many foreign customers and my father, who did not know the language, suffered from not being able to speak directly with them. Once I came back I did all the groundwork to train on the field, working one year together with the workers, in the barrel and finishing departments, in the warehouse, often going with the manager to pick up the raw hides. In 1991, at the age of only 61, my father died, and at that point I found myself leading the company in my early 30s, but built on the strength of experience accumulated over the decade.”
Looking back what comparison can you make with the current situation?
“Almost all of our customers in Germany, Veneto and Marche no longer exist; those who remained work as subcontractors. Our 66 years have been marked by several transformations: already since the end of the last century we have raised the product to a quality level to increasingly penetrate the fashion and luxury sector, this has allowed us to remain in the high-end market. These days the fashionable word “resilience” is a good example because it encapsulates what an entrepreneur should do. It is fundamental to have a history but also to ensure a generational change, new blood is needed to bring innovation and a spirit of adaptation. Young people are open to change, while those who have been working for more years have to put in the experience to ensure management, including relative to costs.
His son Francesco, who in turn is in charge of the commercial aspects, analyzes the market situation. “Today, the luxury sector,” explains the youngest of the Testai, “is characterized by 15-20 brands that belong to three to four very large groups. In the mid-range product in Italy it is difficult to be competitive, with the cost and price increases of the last two years, it is impossible to compete with emerging countries. The only way is a quality product and high customer-facing service, aspects, along with traceability, that are highly demanded by brands, including for sample and color development. Ours is a complete structure, but we remain great artisans, we are not industrial: today in fashion, collections are constantly changing, so you have to have a production capacity to cope with peaks, but above all a production flexibility, to be able to change from one material or finish to another. In the luxury sector, the demands are often pressing, they call you in the morning to have a sample in the evening, because maybe they have a meeting with the designers the next day.”
How do you develop your daily work and what relationships do you have with the workforce?
“We always live in the company, from morning to night, together with our employees, whom we all know very well: we are a reality with human dimensions, an extended family, in such an environment it is easier for a mutual relationship of trust to be created and consolidated. When you ask an employee to make a sacrifice, you then have to reward them: we also think of them and the 55 families who live thanks to this company. Several employees have been here for decades, two years ago a lady who worked 40 years retired, another, with the same long journey, will also be going soon.”
With Valerio and Francesco Testai, we analyzed the economic situation of the Vecchia Toscana Group, particularly in the post health pandemic period. “The last few years,” they point out, “have not been easy: in 2019, before Covid, turnover was 29 million euros, in 2020 we dropped to 17 million, and then returned to 21 million in 2022. Last year we closed at 24 million, thanks to sustained growth until September, but much of the marginality was eroded by rising costs of electricity, gas, and chemicals, as well as a lack of raw materials: in the end, profit was not proportional to the growth in turnover. As for markets, our export share is over 60 percent, concentrated mainly in Europe, the United States and Asia, although we are present in many countries around the world.”
What do you foresee for the second half of 2023?
“In the end it will be the most complex and indecipherable year, in the sense that the first months have not been in line with 2022 in terms of orders from customers, the hope is that in the second half of the year, which then means from September, there will be the promised increase. The current situation from the macro-economic point of view is not positive, also because of the increase in interest rates, both in Europe and the U.S., the war in Ukraine does not help, finally we will have to see how China will move in post-Covid times. The feeling is that an upturn will be there but we cannot quantify in what percentage, so it is necessary to be flexible both in terms of customer service and as a cost structure to cope with declines and increases in turnover. It is difficult to make long term forecasts, in the fashion industry orders never exceed 2 months.”
How do you realize your commitment to the environment?
“The first important goal achieved is the publication of the 2021 sustainability report; we were one of the four or five Italian tanning companies to present it first, mapping consumption and emissions. In the coming months we will go on to publish the 2022 report, with the strategy of reaching zero impact in 2030. We believe that for a tannery, true sustainability is not creating a “green” or metal-free product; very often these are marketing operations, since chromium is a material that exists in nature and is not dangerous. Instead, it should be noted that those who work in this field start from a recovered by-product of the food industry, such as leather, and then turn it into luxury garments. Our commitment is to be able to achieve this transformation from byproduct to luxury good, with as little impact on the environment as possible.”
What operations have been put in place and those already planned?
“In the last three years, despite Covid, we have invested in retrofitting the thermal power plant, which has led to a 30 percent reduction in methane gas, while in these months we are redoing part of the roofing of our plant and then installing solar panels, which will ensure self-production of energy through photovoltaics. In addition, we have replaced obsolete machinery with modern machinery that consumes less, saving an additional 15 percent in electricity and overall reducing CO2 emissions by at least 30 percent. We will continue to invest in additional new machinery, while since the beginning of the year we have reduced water consumption, an increasingly valuable commodity, by 20 percent by changing the process and investing in implementing a reuse system.”
Francesco e Guglielmo Testai