FEATURING:
Brunello Cucinelli,
Chairman and CEO of
Brunello Cucinelli S.p.A.

07
Humanistic Capitalism

February 12, 2019 | 57:24

Join us on location in the village of Solomeo in Umbria, Italy, the home of our guest Brunello Cucinelli, chairman and CEO of Brunello Cucinelli S.p.A., and his successful luxury-clothing brand. A strong believer in humanistic capitalism, Brunello shares how he created a company that values fair wages and profits, giving back, and the importance of treating people and the environment with dignity.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner
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SHOW NOTES
06:47 How Brunello’s childhood instilled his view of humanistic capitalism.
11:25 Brunello commits to human dignity after seeing his father humiliated.
13:00 With human dignity comes responsibility and creativity.
15:02 The importance of being a “good” person.
16:07 Brunello’s views on human dignity are cemented by Kant and discussions in an Italian cafe.
17:31 Though companies have to make a profit, what is a fair profit?
18:31 Brunello lives the life of a typical young Italian gentleman in the 1960s, and dreams of a better way to run a business.
22:01 The comparison of sustainability and humanistic capitalism.
23:45 The role of the web in helping young consumers know which companies to support.
25:09 How the internet has increased the human “ache” and how Brunello runs his company as a result.
27:16 Businesses change their purpose, and credibility becomes even more important.
30:51 Brunello’s passion for being a good man and living a moral life.
33:54 The role that both modern and classical Italy play in Brunello’s philosophies.
38:08 Why it is important to be able to control technology and to have a life unknown by it.
39:33 Contemporary capitalism vs. classic capitalism.
41:00 Staying relevant as a business is intertwined with creating exceptional products.
44:18 Brunello bases his company’s pricing on fair profit, fair wages, and fair costs.
46:34 Brunello wants to be the coordinator of genius, so he surrounds himself with many young people and is willing to listen to all ideas.
Transcript
Hugo Scott-Gall: Hello and welcome to today’s podcast. Slightly unusual start to today’s podcast in that I’m standing outside in the village of Solomeo in Umbria in Italy. With me, I have my colleague Simon Fennell.

Simon Fennell: Hello.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And we are both very excited about the interview that we have coming up. So, we want to you tell you a little bit about it. The village of Solomeo is the home of Brunello Cucinelli, who is our guest today. It’s more than his home, however. He has built this village almost from scratch. He’s certainly renovated this village. He started his eponymous company in 1978, and one of the principles of his company, and, indeed, of his life, is the idea of humanistic capitalism, which is treating people with dignity, but also treating his environment with dignity. He has poured a lot of money into this village. It’s very, very impressive. And, Simon Fennell, perhaps you could describe the scene we see in front of us.

Simon Fennell: So, in many ways, this is a typical Umbrian, perhaps even Tuscan/Italian mountaintop town or hilltop town. What’s most impressive about it, really, has been how beautifully restored it has been. There’s the church and the steeple just at the top. On our left, you might hear the bell chiming fairly soon. There is the store where, just below, the tailoring school is and just across from where Mr. Cucinelli built a theater a few years ago and just above the library. So, the town has many of the elements of dignitas enmeshed in it.

It’s been beautifully done and has become something of a destination in its own right. Most of the work is done slightly further down the hill just into the valley here where the design studios are, some of the offices, as well as the production sites. And I think it used to be up here – the company’s obviously expanded very significantly over the last 10, 20, 30 years or so, and we’ve moved down, as it were, into the valley below. We can see, broadly, to the left here, some football pictures, some vineyards, most of the important elements of a proper Italian life. But in many ways, the village has become something of a reflection of Mr. Cucinelli’s approach to business, to life, and to many other elements beyond.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Thank you, yeah. And so, I think that naturally segways into, what are we looking forward to in this interview? And I would say, obviously, at one level, we’re looking forward to really hearing about, how do you make it in the fashion luxury industry, a brutally competitive industry? And his brand of stuff isn’t that old versus some of the competition, which have much older brands. So, that is very interesting.

The second part, I think, which we would really want to focus on is this idea of humanistic capitalism, treating your whole ecosystem in a fair way and with dignity and the idea of a fair wage or profit. Mr. Cucinelli, his company, gives back 20% of its profits to the foundation every year, which is unusual, and I think you can argue that he, certainly, is ahead of his time in this idea of profit with purpose, fair growth, fair profitability, treatment of employees, supplies, whole ecosystem very well. So, that will be interesting. Simon Fennell, what else are you looking forward to exploring?

Simon Fennell: Well, it’s known that Mr. Cucinelli refers to some of his teachers and mentors, from a philosophical point of view, extensively, and it’s not unknown for him to talk about Voltaire or John Ruskin, William Morris – a number of historical figures that he sees as playing an important role, both in the framing of his approach and, arguably, a more sort of philosophical approach to the idea of this new capitalism. I think he’s made a number of references to a huge broad diverse number of writers, thinkers, way back into the sort of classics, ancient Rome and Greece. So, I always find it interesting that he brings those elements in and makes them particularly real.

The second part is that he’s also very focused on relevance. The clothes that he makes need to have a relevance, today, from a fashion perspective. They need to have a relevance to the consumers and that he’s very aware that he needs to marry some elements of this sort of classicist approach with a relevance of today. That’s not an easy line to tread, and he seems to do it particularly well. So, those two elements, I think, are gonna be fascinating.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I agree. I agree. And I think we also wanna make sure we touch on his creative process. And so, before we start thinking about his creative process, can we talk about your creative process with, perhaps, the most important issue of the day, which is, what are you going to wear when you meet one of the world’s preeminent fashion designers?

Simon Fennell: This is an area of great discussion over the past weeks and months. And from a pressure perspective, I’m not sure –

Hugo Scott-Gall: Are you confident?

Simon Fennell: I’m not confident at all.

Hugo Scott-Gall: No, you don’t look it.

Simon Fennell: From a pressure perspective, I think that this is up there with a few other classic sporting elements here that’s got a lot of pre-match nerves in terms of the strip that one will be wearing tomorrow. Probably very conservative, perhaps a bit more English than Italian, but you never know.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Yeah. Look, I think, with a bit of luck, we should scrape through.

Simon Fennell: Scrape through. Are you gonna wear a tie?

Hugo Scott-Gall: I share your lack of confidence. We’ll just default to a boring English suit. We’ll panic. So, we will check in at the end of the interview to reflect on how it went and, also, for the all-important verdict on whose outfit he preferred.

I’m delighted to have with me, today, Mr. Brunello Cucinelli, his amazing translator, Kiara, and, of course, Simon Fennell. Mr. Cucinelli, thank you so much for joining us today.

Brunello Cucinelli: Thanks.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Perhaps I could start by asking you, what came first? Was it fashion, or was it humanistic capitalism? Which way around?

Brunello Cucinelli: I think that humanistic capitalism came first. Why am I saying this? Because the first part of my life, I dedicated it to build my sort. We were living in the countryside until I was 15. We had no electricity at home. We had no running water, and this was a very special situation. We used to work our land with animals. So, what kind of relationship do you entertain with the land with creation with the animals? A very fascinating and charming one because, first of all, when you have no electricity at home, what do you do? You follow the course of the sun over the sky. And there was my grandfather, a very charming figure, and, in the evening, he would gaze up at the sky because you have no noise if you have no electricity at home, and he would say, “May God send us a fair amount of wind, sunlight, fog, cold.” Everything was supposed to come in fair quantities. That’s why I was always fascinated by the concept of fairness. I was between 8, 12, 14 years of age. I was not a child anymore.

So, these words by my grandfather stayed with me. When we harvested wheat – that’s a very interesting point – we would make 140-150 bags of wheat, and my grandfather would always take the very first bag and give it back to the community, not the last one of the harvest. That’s when I started envisaging of how I could put together making a small profit in perfect balance with giving back because, for me, this bag of wheat was some sort of gift of giving back. It was a small one, mind you. But still, it was a gift from creation.

So, as I said, we were plowing, working the land with animals, and my father used to say to me, “Mind you, your farrows must be, always, very straight,” because I was the one in charge of pulling the oxen. And I would say to my father, “Why do you want them to be straight?” Because they look better. So, we enjoyed this very basic beautiful relationship with the land, and I correlate some sort of relationship according to nature. But the basic idea was to make a fair profit with work and then giving back, and I believe this to be a very contemporary approach.

So, I still had no idea what would become of me at a later stage of my life, but I did know that my parents, my family – we had an extended family of 13 people, and sometimes my parents were humiliated and offended, and I was not very happy. I was upset with the daily offense. But when you live in a countryside and you live like that, you breathe fairness. So, my idea of capitalism, I could say, really originated in my childhood.

Behind you, there’s a beautiful picture of Confucius who stated — when I was 20, I focused on my studies. At 30, I was a fully fledged formed personality. At 40, I sorted out my relationship with life. And at 50, I found the right way to deal with the heavens, with the afterlife. Why I say this? I say it because, when I was 15 in the countryside, I was already a fully formed human being. Then, we moved to the city, the family. My father took up a job in a factory. I was 16-17. And when he came back home in the evening, he had been subject to humiliation. He was 45 or so. And seeing my dad with tearful eyes, humiliated, I was upset, obviously, and I couldn’t really understand why human beings should be humiliated. He never complained about the small wages or how hard his job was, but he did moan about the fact that he was subject to humiliation on a daily basis. So, when I was 16 or 17, I said, “I don’t know what will become of me in my life, but I do want to do something to foster human dignity. I want to try and work respecting human beings.” All this came before fashion.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, those are very, very noble ideals, but I imagine there are times when they were tested. You talk a lot about making a fair profit, but to make a fair profit, you, first, have to have a profit. So, were there times when you doubted this approach, or were you just constant at believing you knew that that was the right thing to do?

Brunello Cucinelli: I never had the slightest doubt about this approach because, first of all, I thought, if I treat you with esteem and regards, regards engenders responsibility and out of responsibility come creativity, which means that, if human beings feel highly regarded, they are more creative. So, there’s no doubt about this. And the other great theme, who are we? Well, I think I am some sort of small-scale guardian of mankind, and I wanted to make a profit whilst, at the same time, upholding ethics and dignity because, you see, each and every one of us, when we go home at night, well, we have a mirror in our homes, and maybe the ancient fathers didn’t.

And when you are faced with a mirror, you are faced with yourself, and you then ask yourself, what kind of life am I leading? Where does my profit stem from? And honestly, I think that that’s when you really think about how you are behaving in life. Well, of course, at least in my case, see how proud my father and grandfather were for giving the small bag of wheat after receiving something from creation engendered fascination, and my ideas were even more supported and strengthened. What is our purpose in life? We must be temporary guardians and custodians, safekeepers.

But for the duration of our life, whether it is long or short, whether small or large business, like my father says, who’s still alive, why can’t we be good people, respectable people? In February/March, the Forbes ranking comes out, and my father was shown this ranking by Forbes and he is 88, and I’m not sure he really understand the scale of it all, the extent of it all. But he said something nice to me. I was told that you are a rich man. I’m very happy for you. But what really matters to me is that you are a good man. And if you think about it, when I was 12-13, he used to say to me, “You must be a good boy.” So, he didn’t go to school or university. He didn’t even speak Italian properly.

Dignity, respect, moral and economic dignity of human beings, that’s where I started building my life. And then, when I was 18-19 years of age, during these very lively interesting discussions at the Italian café, which was a meeting point for us when Heraclitus said, “Polemos is father and master of mankind.” Polemous is discussion. It’s Greek for discussion. So, I had come across a great statement by a philosopher Kant, I was 18, and this really ended my thinking path, and he said, “You should act and consider mankind both for yourself and others, not as simple means, but as the noblest aim and purpose.”

So, when I was 20, I had the noble purpose of mankind in my mind, the moral and economic dignity of human being already engrained in my brand. And also, the great balance between profit and giving back. So, I can say that I had all my tools in my box. I was fully fledged. Regardless of the kind of professional business I would venture in — a worker, an entrepreneur — I, myself, so to speak, was ready. That’s when, also, my humanistic capitalism was ready. It was fully built.

Even if I had chosen to be a clock worker, this was my idea of capitalism already there because a company, a business must make a profit. That’s the objective, the target of the business, but you have to wonder, what is a fair profit? And whilst achieving this profit, were you complying with ethics, the whole supply chain? Was the result of this a fair profit both for the raw materials, for the workers, banks, investors, business — all the different stakeholders?

Simon Fennell: And were you thinking about this as an entrepreneur when you were 20? This idea would be from an entrepreneurial perspective?

Brunello Cucinelli: Honestly speaking, no. It was my idea of a life. But when I was 18, I did start reading these ancient thinkers — not many of them — but all of them prompted me to feel like a temporary guardian of mankind. Alexander the Great, he said the only thing I own, though he was an important powerful emperor, is the land where I’m standing. So, it was the dream that I had cherished all my life. Then, of course, I led the typical life of a young Italian gentleman. In the ‘60s, I, basically, was enrolled in the engineering faculty. I only took one exam because nobody would study and revise. We were just spending our time discussion women, philosophy, theology. This was life back then.

You see, when you spend time — when you hang out in an Italian café, it’s a very fascinating place because, when you are there, there is always someone willing to listen to your sorrows. And today, it is not so often that we did come across somebody who’s willing to listen, so it was an ideal life. And then, at 25, I decided to manufacture colored cashmere. From day one, my dream was to manufacture something whilst with ethics and dignity, and I wanted this profit to not be earmarked to the business part of it so that it was supposed to be stronger, and then part of this profit should go to myself, but I live in a small village, so I do not have many demands, and then part, also, should be allocated to the people working for the company through high wages.

You see, in Italy, still today, wages are just above 1300 euros a month, on average, whereas, if your workers have a chance to make, maybe, 1600 euros, that’s a life-changer. It’s a game-changer. I wanted my managers not to make more than eight to nine times the wages of the average workers — not over eight to nine times. And that’s when this idea took root. So, it was a very small-scale business with no means, at the beginning, but still and always, from day one, respecting creation.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Do you feel that humanistic capitalism and sustainability are the same thing, or is sustainability an increasingly used phrase and expression, maybe, as a sort of cover story, maybe even as sort of greenwashing and that it’s the right thing for companies to say, but are they really doing it underneath? So, I guess I’m interested to think whether you think the two terms should not be used interchangeable, that, actually, sustainability, as most people use it, actually doesn’t mean the same thing as humanistic capitalism.

Brunello Cucinelli: Honestly, I keep saying to my staff that we should stop talking about this type of sustainability. The way you want to call it is human sustainability, together, with living in harmony with creation. We did live in harmony with creation in the countryside. Today, we still want to work and live in harmony with creation, and living in harmony means respecting the land, human beings, the wildlife. Everything must happen according to nature.

So, a fair profit, combining profit and giving back. Then you have olive oil and you have wine that you serve at the corporate canteen. You have orchards. You have wheat. You do not correlate organic. It is, basically, cropped according to the nature, the same as 50 years ago when we did not have any additives or anything, the same thing as it was done traditionally. So, that’s what matters.

However, the word itself, sustainability, I don’t think it’s a really meaningful word. You need to add is something to it, so it needs to encompass fair profit, harmony with creation, giving back, respect for the human being, for the wildlife, for the human beings. And everything must be authentic in the first place. For example, honestly speaking, I do not think that, in the future, young customers will buy something from a brand that they know has had a preposterous profit. They refuse, point blank, to do that. They want to know whether the wildlife, the human beings were respected during the manufacturing process because every young customer making a purchase, they gather information.

Where was it made? How was it made? How much profit came out of it? Therefore, I think there’s a really important change underway, and there’s no doubt the internet was the gate-opener here. Everybody knows everything about anybody else. So, there’s no chance that you can hide anymore. So, I think that the web is some sort of ethicalizing instrument of a contemporary company. That’s basically along the same lines as Ruskin and Morris, the idea whereby quality, craftsmanship, and humanity all encompassed in work. That’s what I wanted to achieve.

But you should know human beings, by nature, carry, within themselves, some sort of malaise of their soul – some aching of the soul can be stronger, at some times, or lighter for some people. At this moment in time, the burden is even heavier because of the fact that we are online all the time. In your view, is it sustainable for a human being, at work — the workers — to be online all the time? It is not. For example, this company, you turn up for work at 8:00 sharp. Everybody, we work until 1:00 p.m. Then, a long lunch break until 2:30, and then we work until half past 5:00, but it is forbidden to be online for business, and 85% of our business is exported. Nevertheless, you’re not supposed to be online on Saturdays and Sundays or receive emails. And if we have something important to discuss, we make phone calls.

And in this case, what is required is respect for the intimacy of human beings, for the privacy of human beings. And as an entrepreneur, as an employer, I do not want to steal your soul because I have forced you to be online and available all the time. Human beings need their freedom. Every day, they need to look after their mind through study, their mind through work – and then through praying and then work. We have to find the right balance between work, mind, soul, the possibility to gaze up at the sky.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And do you think that — I mean, you touched on it a little bit there, that we’re gonna see increasing differentiation from consumers between brands and the value that brands represent will be more and more visible and be more and more important. And maybe this won’t be symmetrical. The good brands may not necessarily be rewarded, but bad brands will certainly be punished.

Brunello Cucinelli: There’s no doubt about this. I’d like to quote a fact. Hundred and eighty-one important listed American companies, a couple of months ago, they signed important agreement, and they changed their purpose that dated back to 1972. Today, they say, “Our purpose is no longer value for the shareholders. It must be a fair profit. It must be human being, the earth, and creation.”

I think that this is a game-changer for mankind. This is the idea of young people or Greta Thunberg, for that matter. Maybe it is one of the biggest movements in the history of mankind, and it springs from young people, and human beings can definitely make a change if they’re faced with the tearful eyes of a child. I went to Greta’s demonstration with my nine-year-old granddaughter. She wanted me to go, and we went together. So, it means that something is at work here.

And I’m now going back to this great topic. Through the web, I can know everything about you – how much money you make, how you behave, how your company behaves, and this is a great change that creation has brought about, which means that, whether you like it or not, you must be better. On one condition, what you said 10 years ago, 15 years ago, is still there, still saved somewhere, so you can’t possibly change your mind because everybody can retrieve what you said years ago. And my answer to your question is, in order to be credible, you must be true to yourself. When things go well, when things go less well, we might be more worried, less concerned. And then I think that something else is at play here. Businesses, in general, they somehow need to go back to the way the ancient people used to plan.

It is our duty, as the Greeks told us, to leave you in more beautiful city than the one inherited.

Pericles, when he, basically, presents the project of the Parthenon to the Athenians, he said, “Until the Parthenon, our Athens will live.” And when Jeff Bezos and the other tech friends came here for three days, they had no mobile phone, and nobody forbade them from using them nobody did. The topics we discussed were what we think about mankind, where your soul lies, what our responsibilities are towards the creation for the next 100-2,000 years. And they were three really fascinating days. That’s why I say that, all of a sudden, mankind is different. Of course, the internet has changed things. It is really a very interesting time we are living in.

In order to be credible, you must be authentic, and I do not want to make a profit that is not fair. When each and every one of us go to bed at night, we take stock of our soul. Whether you like it or not, you do take stock. And if the result does not please you, what you try and do is to try and forget about it, turn around, and sleep.

But if you are happy with your reckoning and you have a better relation with creation, your life is easier. I want to enjoy good relationships with everybody without any prejudice in terms of race, culture, religion — nothing. But I do not want to have anything to do with people that are not good. Socrates once said, “I think that, at the end of one’s life, things will be different for good people than for bad people. And if it wasn’t the case, I will have lived better anyway.” So, I want to be just a small-scale guardian for a short period of time, someone who has made a fair profit whilst respecting every individual

Now, it’s been 40 years that we have had this business, but for 40 years, we have shown the very same respect and treatment to women and men — but 40 year ago, not just today — because we’re all human beings. So, I would like this business to live forever. I know it’s not possible, but we do plan and think as if this company was to stand in this valley for the next 200 years. And then, when you reach the last day of your life – oh, by the way, I want to say something interesting here.

An elderly man had passed away here in the village, and the priest said, “Brunello, what can I say about this man?” And I said, “Just say that he was a good man. Just say that a good man left us,” and I think that’s the best gift that he would’ve wanted from life.

Simon Fennell: Can I ask about Italy? You have some incredible thinkers from Italy on the wall. I’m thinking, perhaps, of someone along the lines of St. Benedict. Some of the ideas that you’re talking about are very Italian, in many ways, admittedly classical rather than, potentially, contemporary, but there are other strands coming from Italy. I’m thinking, perhaps, of the Slow Food Movement, which is very in line with what you’re talking about. Your style is, of course, Italian, beautifully, and I’m wondering what role Italy, both modern and ancient, plays in your thoughts.

Brunello Cucinelli: Well, I’m very honored by your statements. I’d like to start from a statement said by Plato when he came to Syracuse in 400 before Christ, and he stated something fascinating, for me, as an Italian. He said, “These people from Syracuse and these Italian, who basically binge eat twice a day, and they never want to go to bed alone.” And already, as Italians, we’re talking philosophy.

So, of course, I’m very proud of being Italian. So, I’m never worried when someone talks about politics in Italy because, you see, I’m 66 years of age, and I have witnessed 66 governments here. So, I cannot afford to be worried about the change in government on a yearly basis. I just know one thing. We are manufacturers that rank second only to Germany in Europe, and we are located at the very top of the pyramid because we are the best luxury manufacturer in the world, and this is true for fashion or mechanics or many other industries.

Italian young people are very fascinating because they’re used to managing things when they’re unexpected. We are very open to the world. We always have been for millennia, and this dates back to the Roman Empire. So, this is what makes me proud. And, maybe, at least my thinking is that we are one of the best nations in terms of the way we live. For example, we have free healthcare for everybody, and we have public education, too. So, what I say is that our welfare state definitely protects and defends everybody in terms of offering free education and healthcare. So, I’m proud of my splendid Italy. Of course, we have manufactured product that’s our core.

We are not that much savvy in finance because we come from business and industry. You see, I was talking with the guys of the Silicon Valley. They’re all young people, except for Jeff Bezos who’s 53. So, I was saying to them, “Our corporate culture is slightly different to yours. So, what we do, we set up business, and we think it should survive for 200 years for our next generations, even too much. We are very much attached to our land. This is very important, the value of the surroundings of the location, because that’s where our soul is.” So, as I was saying to the Silicon people, “Where is your soul,” and, for some of them, their soul is not in the Silicon Valley. They were born elsewhere.

So, I said to them, “Sometimes you set up business, you sell it, you make your proceeds, and then you move on to something else. This is different cultures. Both respectable, but different,” whereas we are classic manufacturers.

So, I am here to praise my people, my Italians, and I would like each and every one of us to praise their own people, their own nation because I’ve always thought that, if human beings could do that, it would be advisable for each and everyone to live where they were born because that’s where yourself was formed. So, you need to live in harmony with creation, human sustainability, technology coupled with humanism.

I think that, in the future, true luxury in life will be to lead a life that is not known by a smartphone because every human being, they need to have a public, a private, and a secret life. It’s not that the secret life – there’s nothing really outrageous to hide, but everybody has a secret life. So, I think that we can dare talk about human privacy and technology, and they should go together. I always say, to my staff, let’s always source the best, the most cutting-edge technologies, but you should always be able to rule them and control them. We should behave as humanist artisans of the web. And so, we navigate the web world as if we were artisans, so these artisans that were so dear to William Morris and John Ruskin, but there is a new form of capitalism underway. But let’s go back to this for one moment: Why shouldn’t capitalism be contemporary like everything else?

I think that capitalism is old as the world, but it needs to, basically, go ahead at the same rate as mankind — develop at the same rate. Someone important in Italy, the other day, told me, “Capitalism cannot exist.” I disagree. I am a classic capitalist, but I would like to be the pursuer of a contemporary capitalism with a fair profit, so with a fair capital, with a fair relationship to creation.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, I guess those two concepts can coexist. You can have classic capitalism and contemporary capitalism. And so, for you, it must be very important to stay relevant, to stay relevant in your products. So, you talk about contemporary capitalism, but you need to make sure a fair profit presupposes a profit, and a profit comes from having products that customers want to buy. And no doubt, the values that you embody will be attractive, but the products themselves still have to be attractive. So, how much do you think about staying relevant, and what is your process to make sure you stay relevant?

Brunello Cucinelli: Well, every company can survive only and exclusively on contemporary products. Otherwise, there is no chance. But there’s one thing, today, to have a contemporary relevant product is key. But before, you would only present your product to your audience, whereas, nowadays, you also present your business. If your company is a relevant company but has no relevant product, it does not work. If you have a contemporary product not backed up by a relevant business, then it is difficult to survive.

So, I think that the relevance of products also stems from the courage you have to listen to others because there’s no way around it. If you become successful, you stop listening. That’s human nature for you. Whereas, in the art of listening and work by Plutarch — he stated that 50% of his issues were solved simply by listening. So, if we have creativity, respect, and genius, we might end up with a relevant product. You see, in Italy, we struggle to accept the fact that it’s no longer up to us to manufacture low-end goods. Indian, Chinese customers, they do not expect low-level manufacturing from us. We have lost that kind of bracket.

And as a result, we have three to four percent more unemployment because we’ve lost this piece of the market. But in order to recover, we have to employ these unemployed workers in high-end companies now, but that’s the way it works because we have redesigned the world labor map.

And for Italy, for some countries, and the same also goes for your England or Germany, the whole world expects, from us, from Europe, very high-level, high-quality handcrafted goods. That’s why I see, in Europe, a great manufacturer of exceptional products for this century. Europe is a forger of that. We are scared because, in the — Europe was big in the 19th Century. Twentieth Century was the century of America, but this century is the century of China, my esteemed China.

So, altogether, respecting each other, there’s no doubt that we can succeed. Someone might wonder, are you not scared of custom duties? Well, I think that we are so intertwined together, the whole of mankind, that it will be difficult to really wage great trade wars because we’re too interconnected. That’s why I’m fascinated by this world.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Here’s a very simple question: How do you set your prices?

Brunello Cucinelli: Well, it’s a very interesting question how we set our prices. Well, we take into account the fair costs so that every stakeholder is fairly remunerated — the raw materials, producers, the workers down to the end product. Then, we also take into account what a fair profit for the company could be. We have always maintained that a business, according to our idea, we should have a net profit of 10% every year.

Our company is an Italian company, and I want to be taxed here in Italy to pay taxes in Italy. We have a 30% tax rate, which I consider fair for a developed country, as Italy is, because we do not have any offices or branches elsewhere in the world, for tax reasons, just Italy. Then you might say maybe 10% net profit could be too much. Well, I don’t know, but I’ve always been used to thinking about what fair profit is, and this is my conclusion because those who buy your products, they should know that the item they buy has been manufactured with fairness. I, myself, would feel uncomfortable wearing or purchasing something by a brand that has made a profit that doesn’t really add up.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Could you talk a little bit about your creative process, both you as an individual, but also within the company? How has it evolved over time? So, I imagine it probably has evolved. And what’s the role of diversity, as in having people in the room with different experiences, different training, different perspectives, different viewpoints? How do you avoid — I guess two questions. Maybe they’re a little bit blunt, but how do you avoid group think, and how do you encourage people to disagree with you or not always trying to second guess what it is you want?

Brunello Cucinelli: Well, first of all, I think that people feel empowered when they feel that they get respect when they are paid fair wages and when they know that they’re working not to the detriment of humankind. Would you be willing to work for a company that gives you low wages, working in conditions that are not too pleasant? Because we were taught that, if you raise your gaze to the heavens, you waste time, whereas creativity might also entail being distracted for a second. This is the first message to young people. Secondly, you need to be surrounded by many young people and be willing to listen to them.

So, there’s 2,000 people in this company. About 100 people make up the style team, 10 for the first level menswear and 10 for womenswear, and plus myself, and I want to be your classic creative director. But at the same time, I want to listen to genius. What I want to be is the coordinator of genius. So, you might have more genius in color. The other one might have more genius in style, more genius in visual merchandising. And altogether, we combine it all. And of course, if you convey fear to them, if you intimidate them, they will not express themselves. If you pay them little, they will end up not voicing their opinion.

I’ve always thought that a top manager should never earn more than eight to nine times the average wage of the other staff. Whereas, if you made 100 times the other workers, those other workers would feel belittled, and, as a result, they would be less creative.

I can still — I do hope that this company is able to stay here in this valley for the next century. It might not be the case, but this is my purpose. When you grow fairly, your corporate culture grows along, your people grows along, and the community also grows along in a gracious way. I never wanted to implement the stock option plans in my company. This was a very precise decision from my side. I wanted my managers to have their own fair remuneration, but not something prompting them to make huge profit in just a short period of time. I wanted them to envisage the company, long term, so I want to be a guardian, custodian of my company.

The time we devote to our company must be in harmony. Balance, harmony it is all part of that human privacy of that living according to nature of harmony and human sustainability. At the end of the day, I would like this company to be a company, a business that believes in moral and economic and humanistic dignity of human beings.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Well, I’d like to say thank you very much for giving us so much of your time. It’s been fascinating, hugely insightful, and really quite different from the average interviews we do. So, if I could just thank you, Mr. Cucinelli, again. Kiara, superb translation. And of course, Simon Fennell. Thank you very much.

Brunello Cucinelli: Thank you. I know you came to visit. You viewed our company. You met our family. And I am honored that you came here to learn about our vision. So, I wish for you to keep behaving like you are, and I would also like to add that maybe we should not underestimate the fact that the sky, the stars, creation, very often, can show us the way in life. We should try and be good people, and thank you. Thank you very much from the deep of my heart.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Thank you.

So, as promised, here is our post-interview recap. We won’t spend long, but I think it is worth just discussing what we heard and to reflect on it. And I think the reason for doing that is we spend a lot of time in the interview around the notion of humanistic capitalism, and it’s clearly something that Mr. Cucinelli wanted to talk about a lot. But I think the reason to spend time and to hear him really explain it is because it is different. It is unusual what he and his company are doing. So, I, in particular, thought the time he spent on that was very important to do.

Also, I think hearing him talk about how he sets prices I found very interesting. Through the interview, he said, a lot of times, fair, fair. Wanna make a fair profit, set fair prices. I think that’s something that’s very front of mind for him. So, I don’t know if you agree, Simon Fennell, or do you think there are other things you’ve taken away from it? But I think that — I hope agree, as well, about spending the time on explaining what he sees as humanistic capitalism.

Simon Fennell: So, for me, it was the breadth of the vision of that humanistic capitalism, that it encompasses a very broad array of interests, those working at the company, those as suppliers in the supply chain, those in the retail stores — just the whole ecosystem or the environment of the business that he’s in and the element of that process of a humanist capitalism. It’s much broader than a discussion on ESG, than a discussion on narrow sustainability that’s often quite product related or at least ingredients related, as it were. So, for me, the breadth of that was crucial to hear, and the passion behind his description of it was really key for me.

So, that breadth of the approach was classic and important. The second part that struck me was the depth of thought in terms of the approach is very different. And while there are elements in terms of sustainability crusades around the place, his vision of it is incredibly deeply thought out, has been for a while. This is not a Johnny-come-lately scenario, and that’s very interesting. So, the breadth of it and the depth of it were different to that which I thought we’d go into and was fascinating.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And we spent time prepping for this interview. We also spent time — we need to be honest about this — prepping what we were gonna wear. I think it’s important, in life, to acknowledge a well-earned victory, and it’s important to acknowledge when you’ve lost. I’m now prepared to acknowledge that I’ve lost. Your outfit garnered immediate attention from Mr. Cucinelli.

Simon Fennell: Immediate. Immediate, yes, and yours —

Hugo Scott-Gall: Hands and everything.

Simon Fennell: — did not.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Mine did not. Now, later on, once we finished the interview, once he finished readjusting your collar and praising you.

Simon Fennell: Thank you.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I caught a bit of ground. There were some compliments that he said very nice things about, that we were very well turned out in a classically English way. But I have to say, on this occasion, you take the plaudits Now, in no way, am I a sore loser, but I do want to make two points.

Simon Fennell: Two points.

Hugo Scott-Gall: One is you are wearing one of his jackets.

Simon Fennell: And a pocket square.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And the second point is you were wearing a pocket square.

Simon Fennell: Yes. So, that was planned, and you could see that as an ambush of you.

Hugo Scott-Gall: No, I think it’s fine. I think it’s fine.

Simon Fennell: It’s within the rules, right?

Hugo Scott-Gall: I mean, there are no real rules here, as you have shown. So, I think your victory is well deserved, and I’m very pleased for you, and I think the creativity, the imagination, and, frankly, the wallet required to buy a jacket from him and a pocket square means that your victory is something that should warm you and —

Simon Fennell: Don’t feel bad.

Hugo Scott-Gall: — lead to a pleasing glow —

Simon Fennell: Don’t feel bad.

Hugo Scott-Gall: — over the next 12 to 24 hours.

Simon Fennell: Thank you. I take that. Thank you.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner
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