Chapter 2: Glories and Disasters in the Chemical Industry (1959-1965)

3. The Promotion of Chemical Products in Switzerland
It was in September 1960 that I was sent to a branch abroad. I thought that they would send me to New York, instead I was sent, more modestly, to Basle, Switzerland. I invest­­ed what little money I had, together with a considerable loan, in a car, and left for my new “registration” point. In the twelve months that followed I travelled no less than 36,000 kilometres on almost every road in Switzerland, apart from those in the mountains. These I came to know about later. The journeys were made with the aim of presenting Montecatini products to thousands of small, medium and large businesses. I was reimbursed for every kilometre and this helped me pay off my debt.
My first meeting with German Switzerland was not easy. My German, superficially learnt at secondary school, was pretty rough. In Basle they spoke the local dialect of the kind that exists in every corner of Switzerland. My learning therefore came about through “immersion” so to speak. I very quickly learned that the inhabitants of Basle, a border people, had a sweet/sour sense of humour, similar to that of the inhabitants of Trieste. One day in a cafe-restaurant I asked, in German of course, a man at a nearby table if I could take the newspaper that was lying next to him. “Of course,” he replied, “but pay attention, the sheet of paper is white, but the letters are in black…” Happy with the reply, I enjoyed eating the dish of “jambolaya” that I had ordered, while reading the black letters, naturally.
One cannot live in Basle for a year without remembering the unique spectacle of its Carnival. One evening in February someone told me “Tomorrow we get up at four in the morning and go out into the street. It’s the moment of the “Morgenstreich”, the morning drum roll”. And so it was, except that there were hundreds of drums, lined up in rows of tens or twenties, each in a company completed by an equal number of flautists. There were, and every year there still are, tens of these companies that take turns at playing a slow march.
They crisscross the city many times for three days and three nights, stopping every so often to have “Mehlsuppe”, a flour based soup cooked till it becomes dark. Every company wears a costume prepared during the year with characteristic masks of ancient origin, prob­ably linked to wood and mountain spirits. In the Alps there are similar sculptures all over Switzerland, from East to West, almost as if there were a wish to propitiate the evil spirits. On hearing that music I understood the origin of the preparatory exercises I had heard coming from many old houses during the winter. It was the companies performing their rehearsals.
Next to these groups there is the “Guggel Musik”. At first they sound like little jazz orches­tras that deliberately play badly. All this for three days. Then there are the usual masks and small groups of twos and threes who go around with large posters illuminated from within, on which appear caricatures of politicians, local celebrities or the reminder of local events that have marked the year. They enter and leave cafes and restaurants declaiming their arguments, often in the form of poems. All of this in the Basle dialect. I felt like Asterix who, confronted by the Romans, repeatedly declared “These Romans really are mad”. I thought “these inhabitants of Basle, these Swiss really are mad”. They, as if it was not already enough, had the habit of throwing hundreds of oranges from the windows of houses and especially of offices, at the groups that paraded past. The banking institutions were particularly given to this.
It was not the Venice Carnival, but from another point of view it was equally impressive. I learned why in their daily lives the inhabitants of Basle were more relaxed and entertaining than those of the other Swiss cantons. Once a year they let themselves go together in a manner I have rarely seen. Even in New Orleans, the collective madness does not last three days and three nights in a row.
Every Swiss canton really does have its own tradition. The Basle Carnival is almost unknown abroad, perhaps because it is not “serious” enough, and especially because in German-speaking Switzerland humour is concentrated on the facts and the personalities of daily life. It is a humour that, just between us, would be out of place in an undemocratic regime. Here then is an export product that all those who would like to make the democratic process of some regimes more easy, should put forward.
The Basle Carnival didn’t take away the seriousness of working practices. I still remember the day I phoned a business seeking an appointment. I had asked the person at the other end of the line to allow me to meet them as early as possible in the morning. He answered, “I’m very sorry but I deal with the post first thing in the morning, so I can’t see you before 7.30”. It certainly was not the timetable used in Milan or Geneva, nor did I know if such a response would be possible that day, even in Basle or Zurich.
The Basle office of Montecatini had been entrusted to a Dr. Ramandi who gave carte blanche to a blonde forty year old Zurich lady endowed with a strong sense of command. She basically dealt with the sales side of the business and allowed me to deal with my own task which was to contribute to the research on polypropylene, and whenever possible to suggest all the other chemical products available.
And so it was that I had my first experience in sales strategy in a difficult situation. At a certain point in fact there was a scarcity of an important base product for paints (titanium dioxide). In the market there were many competitors in several countries, but none of them were able to deliver in accordance with the established agreements, given the seller’s logic to think (and this is human) “first we sell and then we’ll see”. On the one hand a company chose to increase prices beyond the level provided for in the existing contracts, with the risk of becoming bogged down in legal wranglings, but with a considerable increase in profits. On the other a competitor invited all their customers to a hotel where they explained the situation, asking each to give up a small part of their order while suggesting they negotiate the sharing out of the existing reserves of the product. Here is a school project that I believe should be discussed in management courses. Each one has the task of drawing conclusions and finding the best balance between the short and long terms. If one wanted one could even talk of ethics and of how to instil loyalty in customers.
On the subject of polypropylene I worked alongside a chemical engineer who came from the Italian laboratory where the first samples of the new synthetic material had been produced. Together with him I inspected hundreds of small and medium businesses in German speaking Switzerland. During this process I also examined dozens of small hotels, preferring games of skittles. It was not only the pleasure of being in such simple places in so-called deep Switzerland, but also that of being almost always welcomed with a handshake from the owner. The names of these places were, and still are “All’Orso”, “All’Aquila”, “Alla Stella d’Oro”, “Al Leone”, certainly not Michelin Guide but with a good clean smell and walls lined with sometimes very old wood.
My chemistry expert was very competent and was also a good travelling companion except for this: he was an avowed fascist, to the point of confessing to me that at home in Italy he had a gun. One day I ended up asking what he and his friends had against the Jews. He, who spat on priests, recounted the story of deicide. I looked him straight into his eyes and he lowered them. After that we never discussed the subject again. This reminds me of another Montecatini colleague in Milan, one who had been in the Resistance. He too hinted that he had a weapon at home “for the cases in which…”. Dangerous people these Italians are.
With regard to polypropylene we distributed fibre, film, or sheet samples everywhere, as well as granules for extrusions. We were extremely unfortunate. One out of three times on opening a box we discovered that the products had not been chemically well stabilised and had turned into a paste or a stinking powder. Moreover we were faced with competition from an American factory that contested Montecatini’s patent and had begun to market polypro­pylene. It was the good Ramandi who dealt with the legal aspect of this affair while at the same time in Milan the President of Montecatini was declaring that everything was going very well. There must have been problems of communication within the corporation.
In any case many tests were carried out in the simplest and most efficient manner. When we told a manufacturer of small bags that polypropylene was very resistant to oil our listener took the sheets we gave him, folded them as required, put oil inside and placed the whole package on an outside window sill. He then told us to come back in a month and then wished us a good journey. Simple, no?
Sometimes we also found ourselves involved in very unpleasant situations such as the day when, in a spinning mill, they took our thread to put it into a machine that should have combined it with a cotton thread. The rubbing of the machine generated heat resulting in the evaporation of our polypropylene thus showing it to be not yet chemically stabilised. An easy way to understand defect in the new product but one where the solution required an in-depth study by means of expensive research.
Between the delay in finalising the new plastic material, the legal wranglings with the American competitor and various other difficulties, at the end of my year in Basle, Montecatini’s success proved to be increasingly modest. About that time, just a little later, Italy had nationalised electricity production, essentially represented by the Edison company. The company received substantial compensation from the State and so things were once more in order and Montecatini finally became Montedison.

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