Construction worker. CC0

Stronger than the Crisis. I'm not Closing.

With the economy in shambles, how do we remain calm? We put this question to a group of entrepreneurs who share a friendship, and they told us about the source of their hope, which is concrete and possible, even for those who don’t share their profession.
Davide Perillo

It was just a month ago. We had just started cutting overtime, and one day I saw a young woman still there working, late in the evening. I went to her and said, “Excuse me, why are you still here?” “No, look, I’ve already punched out on the timeclock. But I was finishing this job and I wanted to do it well.” Surprised? Well, they can tell you stories like this, one after the other, like that of the salesman who had earned an end-of-the-year bonus, and told the company owner, who was in financial difficulty, “Don’t worry; give it to me when you can,” or the story of the lifetime competitor who spent an afternoon talking about the problems in his company and said, “If I manage to save it, I want to work with you,” or the fellow who was laid off, and gave the “boss” a bear hug before he left. These are unthinkable facts, in this business atmosphere dominated by ever darker tones, when those who run a company can be kidnapped by their infuriated workers (as happened to a plethora of supermanagers in France) and crowds seige bankers (London during the G-20). But positive things are happening, here and now, and they generate a surprising result: in the world of twenty million jobs at risk, of domino-effect closures, and sales in a Siberian deep freeze (“down 36% from the beginning of the year;” “I’m down 40%;” “we’re down a third”), even among those who run businesses, you can find serious but strangely serene faces–such as those around this table.

Eight entrepreneurs (all Italians, but their testimonies are valuable for eveyone) from different sectors and backgounds, with firms employing about 10 to 100 people, have two or three things in common that are anything but secondary, even when it’s a matter of rolling up your shirtsleeves and facing big trouble. Faith, first of all, and friendship, which led them seven years ago to establish, as part of the Companionship of Works, a Free Enterprise Club that now has a mailing list of about a thousand people, and an unusual way of conceiving of itself and reality, beyond work. Or rather, within work: in the relationship with employees and in the search for clients; in the choices to make and the risks to run, even in the current crisis, which can become an opportunity, even in truly hard times.

Trench warfare. “Let’s start out from a fact: six months ago, there wasn’t anything, and today, we’re in a disaster,” says Matteo Brambilla, 53, owner of a metallurgics/mechanics firm with 40 employees, and founding member of the club. “This will give you an idea. In September, we had record sales, but in March, there was a 90% drop in orders.” The crisis has been very rapid and involves the whole world–no exceptions. “The only possible comparison is 1929, but globalization has speeded everything up. There’s a battle underway for a new economic and political order on the world level. I’m saying this out of realism, but also out of a sense of proportion: we’re like infantry in the trenches during the First World War.” So the risk exists for everyone, something that’s better said right off, to avoid any temptation to imagine them as people outside the world or, worse still, as models of excellence and heroism. “Our first instinct would be to have no desire to open our mouths,” says Brambilla. “We’re here talking about it, and when the interviewer leaves, our colleagues and competitors will know that we, too, might close up shop. But, first of all, I’m certain of one thing: I may have to close my business, but I’m not closing down. And then, crisis or no crisis, we can’t avoid acknowledging the awesomeness of some facts,” one among them foremost. “In this chaos, we’ve found that, almost despite ourselves, we have a certain way of acting and thinking. It wasn’t the outcome of a series of deductive actions: there’s the crisis, we’re Catholics, and thus we have to do certain things. No, we’ve just discovered that we’re this way.”

“This way” means, first of all, more aware of a given, something valid not just for those who ply the same trade. “You understand better that the company isn’t yours. What becomes central is the entreaty, ‘Lord, You who entrusted this thing that maybe–as happened to me–I inherited and that years ago I never thought I’d have to run, what do You want from me now? What are You asking of me?’” Superspiritualism? “No, realism. This entreaty makes me more serene, because it puts things into perspective, but it also makes me more decisive in my action. Keeping it alive isn’t idiotic; it makes positivity prevail, and it even helps keep the company alive.” In what sense? “Saying that it’s not yours isn’t abstract. It touches the way you conceive of money, for example, whether you reinvest it or take it from the company to build yourself a villa in Sardinia. If the company is something you serve, and not a cow to be milked, once you have your salary, you put the profits back into the company. Well, it’s no coincidence that this is what makes the difference now between one company and another. Today, we’re still standing because with humility we’ve always left the money in the company.”

. It’s also the first premise for Marco Montagna, from Pesaro, Italy, the owner of a construction firm with contracts in half the world and sales of over 60 million. “Before, I was more distracted. I was convinced that by now the firm was at a level that I just had to touch the accelerator lightly for it to continue cruising by itself. But it wasn’t true. I found myself thrown back into reality. I began to suffer, but I also began to live again.” For Fortunato Grillo, 48, who’s in the moving business (and related activities), “My first concern was to solidify the firm’s finances, so we wouldn’t be trapped in debt. We threw in family money, as much as we could, and we made it, even though the banks said we were nuts. Then we tried to keep on our personnel. We left a few people at home for a few days, and others took holidays, but we also tried to see what they were capable of doing, other than moving services. If someone knew how to paint, we began doing that, or maintenance. Well, for the moment, we’re all working.”

Redoing the accounting. “This crisis has brought us back to the essential, in accounting, too,” observes Ambrogio Beretta, 43, in the field of cables and flexible transmissions. “You have to redo your accounting, to see if you’re ‘in,’ and things you never would’ve expected come forth.” For example? “At a certain point in the company, we realized that we weren’t making it, that what we were doing cost too much in relation to our profits. We had to try to do more with less, because reality asked this of us. I didn’t think of drawing immediate conclusions at that meeting, but out of 18 people present, 8, including 2 workers, came to me to tell me they would even accept a reduction in pay: “Rather than having to fire someone, we’re willing.” And these are people who earn just a 1,000 euros a month. I’m struck that what we’ve sown for years, not out of any merit of ours, has generated such a level of sharing.”

Anastasia Accattoli, owner of a small wine company in the Marches region, also starts out from her relationship with her employees. “We began feeling the crisis some time ago. We had the problem of cutting overtime and being careful about everything, to save. The employees didn’t accept this right away; they were used to doing overtime all their lives, and it meant money. But after a while, they began to get involved. Now it happens that they stay on, even after hours. This morning, one of them asked me, ‘What do you think? Should I turn on the heater now or wait till this evening, so we spend less?’ It’s an attention to detail, an attitude of sharing, that wasn’t there before. This is important for those who run a company.” Brambilla puts it this way: “The person is worth more than the balance sheet. If you can, you try to save the person’s job.

But if you have to send someone away, how you do so is important. In my firm, I’ve got four temporary workers, and according to a certain logic, they should be the first people to let go, right? Well, at least in an initial phase, I said, ‘I don’t want to throw you overboard; you’re also in the same boat. Stay here, as long as possible. We’ll have to use unemployment benefits a bit more, but we can try. I may not succeed, but at least I can try.’ Or, in another case, I had to fire a fellow from the technical department. One of our group here today told me, ‘I could take him, though his salary’d be lower.’ I asked the worker if he were willing. I supported him with his salary for three more months, while he learned this new job, and he began there. After a while, he found another job and came to say good-bye. A big bear hug. And I’d fired him, right?”

Here it is, the other clue to the “certain way of acting and thinking, almost despite ourselves”: a different way of looking at man. Not just those involved, but others as well. “If you think about it, businesses are one of the few non-casual places of aggregation left,” says Montagna. “School, friendships, even families at times are places where it becomes difficult to tell each other things. Instead, in a firm, reality still dictates a certain discipline, a way of looking at reality. It’s a setting where humanity is still mobilized.”

“The owner of one of the warehouses we rent came to me,” recounts Paolo Zanella, who works in robotics, “and he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I’ve invested everything in new machines and now I haven’t got one client. I don’t know what to do anymore.’ They ask you for advice, and you try to help them, to bring them to a level of reasonableness, but doing so, you realize that your equilibrium doesn’t come from yourself, that it’s not a question of heroism. We’re grounded in something that comes before the company, work, or the crisis–even when you’re winded and can’t catch your breath. I’ve had to tell several people to stay home, and one of them told me, ‘I’m really sorry, not so much because I’m losing my job, but because I’m losing the opportunity of a relationship in a situation that has been unique for me.’ This just blows you away, and gives you an even greater awareness of the different fact we’ve encountered.”

This is why many speak of a “new beginning,” a “period in which everything is opening up again,” (according to Paolo) or in which you’re readier to embrace the unforeseen. “But even the capacity to embrace the possibilities opening up is the fruit of a relationship,” says Pietro Zuretti, who works in mechanics with 23 employees. “Now, it’s rare to make a decision without talking to each other. Last Friday, I kept a tally: in one day, I’d made about 30 decisions, and for the most important ones, I’d always talked to my friends–not out of a desire to delegate responsibility, but because you find another opening for light.” An opening for light, like the one Montagna found years ago, in a dialogue with Fr. Giussani, “who helped me understand everything in one sentence. I went to him and spoke for an hour about the idea of walking out on my work, because the relationship with my father was too difficult, and he just listened and let me run on. At the end, I said, “So then, it’s decided. I’ll go home and tell my father I’m walking out, okay?” “Okay.” I got up. He looked at me, and said, “Aren’t you convinced?” “No.” “That’s right, because if you walk out on this, you walk out on reality.”

Summarizing, you realize that, deep down, it all revolves around the same two factors mentioned in the beginning, nothing else. One: their friendship, which is decisive, because on their own, they wouldn’t have been able to live this way. “What we’re experiencing has made it even more urgent to understand the nature of this companionship, which was born 10 years ago from the fact that Marco in Pesaro and I here, in our relationship with Fr. Giussani, received help in facing our work,” explains Brambilla. “Not only has the crisis not shaken our friendship, it has made it even more interesting.”

The second factor is faith, truly a factor of knowledge, even of competence. It’s something that enables you to understand better what a company is, who the dependents are, and who you are. It gives you a certainty that “you don’t find around,” as Montagna says. It comes out clear as day in the story told by Paolo Camillini, a producer of plastic tubes. “For an entrepreneur, not seeing the fruit of your labor is really hard. In a situation like this, it can even be crushing. I’m struck by the immense help School of Community gives me. We’re touching the fact that the place where Christ reaches you is the one solid point of judgment. It’s for you, even when you don’t know where it may lead. At times, I feel like those who left Egypt and found themselves in the desert: a huge success, only to obtain nothing and wander around for 40 years. But in the meantime, they were writing the Bible. You can make mistakes, but you’re on a road, not a blind alley.”

Words and facts. “I’ve been reading Giussani for years, since the GS era,” says Beretta. “But now I’m able to take those words and give them flesh, make them mine. Take ‘freedom in relationships,’ for example. You talk about it dozens of times, but only when you put it into play with your collaborators do you understand what freedom is, that there’s a space totally of the other. Here, this happens to me: thanks to the crisis, I’m going through the text from the vantage point of the facts.”

What do the facts say? In this chaos, where is your hope? I ask around the table, and gazes meet. There’s talk of investments to concretize, a sowing waiting to be reaped, products developed, and awaiting orders, but, above all, there is talk about oneself. “The first factor of hope is how I’ve changed in this period,” says Zuretti, straightforwardly. “I’ve always hated budgets, because they shift the problems into the future,” adds Camillini. “Instead, you have to start out from reality. This client has appeared. This product exists. You have this problem, and it pushes you to look for a solution. Reality. That’s your fulcrum, not dreams.” “Open the newspapers, and you find a ton of people trying to give you the right prescription for the crisis,” says Beretta. “There’s only one prescription: that I hold out, that my heart makes me hold out like a man within the circumstances.”

“A few days ago, I went home depressed,” recounts Brambilla. “One tragic piece of news after another: closures, bankruptcies. A disaster. The next afternoon, instead, I noticed I was in a better mood, and I wondered why. I realized that it was enough that I’d had an encounter that made me see a chance to start again, to buy a piece of another company. What made the difference in my attitude? Something happened. There was something. A presence makes the difference, not the fact that you tell yourself to cheer up. Hope is born of a present thing that exists. This makes me understand the nature of Christ better. He’s a present fact. If not, He doesn’t count.” Instead, He exists, and changes you. “The other evening, I returned home and my daughter said, ‘Daddy, okay, there’s the crisis, but you can hug me anyway, can’t you?’” And? “I smiled at her. And I hugged her.”