Over a period of approximately 30 years, between 1980 and 2000, a region in southern Italy, Murgia, located between Bari and Matera on the border of Puglia and Basilicata, suddenly rose up as a preeminent global producer of upholstery. During those three decades, Murgia competed with some of the most famous upholstery districts, such as Brianza in northern Italy and Hickory and High Point, North Carolina, in the USA. At its height in the early 2000s, the Murgia district boasted over 14,000 employees and 500 companies, with a total value of approximately 2,000 billion euro in turnover, the majority of which was exported throughout the world.
Those familiar with this area are impressed by the aesthetics of the landscape, traditionally dedicated to wheat cultivation, characterized by the same agricultural colors that change from green to gold to brown with the passing of the seasons. The production of sofas—typically in leather—made use of this natural palette and bucolic parallelism. The local factories exported furniture capturing the landscape of Murgia in its hues across the globe. Nothing impeded production during Murgia’s golden age: factories ran uninterrupted on Christmas, Easter, and for the entire summer in order to satisfy orders from around the world. It is difficult to believe without having witnessed this history in person. Until 10 years ago, however, it was commonplace to see thousands of people involved in sofa production and hundreds of containers dispatched daily to the closest ports for export.
The Natuzzi group was the leader in Murgia, the biggest furniture producer in the world and the cornerstone of the district that evolved around it, and was quoted on Wall Street saying “my daily job creates new jobs.” This slogan demonstrated that a “new deal” was possible even in an unknown region of Italy’s deep south, in an area that for generations experienced its population emigrate to the North and abroad, where jobs were more easy to come by. This slogan gave rise to a dream: live and work here and thereby create income, value and wealth for your entire region. This period stands out as a golden age with the same color of wheat in the summertime ripe for harvest, an ancestral sign of life and abundance.
Now, 10 years later, an advancing depression is swallowing the once-prosperous industrial area. Under the pressure of globalization, the strength of the euro and competition from new players born in countries with low labor costs (the same countries where some companies from Murgia have outsourced to, like the Natuzzi group), Murgia has fallen victim to a sad history: more than 400 companies have closed their doors. This disaster—a local Hiroshima—was fueled by a delayed and myopic response to the new global competitive scenario. There were, of course, many factors that contributed to the near-demise of the district, but the principal fault was that while the world was changing rapidly, the district was blinded by its own misleading reflection. In the end, the mirror reflected an image that no longer existed.
So, is all lost? Is a different future possible that doesn’t require immigrating to far-away places, repeating the region’s past?
Italy’s famous imagination and creativity must be used to invent a new system of doing business in order to address this dilemma (really, it needs not be a novel solution, but if it was capable of responding to the altered competitive scenario, it had never been implemented). The idea is that the district—a sum of different companies in competition among themselves—needs to morph into a network or consortium where smaller but more flexible and efficient companies operate along the entire value chain. In a market scenario where speed is necessary to win, the new network must be fast, competitive and offer a high level of product quality, comprised of specialized companies focused on different phases of sofa production (from R&D to marketing, commercial services, sales, all the way to operations, delivery, shipping, including customer service). The idea is to convert a regional sofa district into an efficient and innovative sofa-manufacturing network. This would be a revolutionary change in order to continue seeing the ancestral color of the wheat combined with the comfort of locally made furniture already famous across the world.