VILLANOVA MONDOVI — Aldo Bongiovanni, a 30-year-old beanpole, laughs timidly. Where others in a crisis-stricken Italy see no hope, he sees opportunity — in a mill in the countryside of the Cuneo province, in northwest Italy, near where he played as a child.
“In Italy, complaining is in fashion,” he says. “I can’t stand it anymore. There is work. Look at me! You just need to see it.”
In 10 years, he transformed the family business, which had been flagging, into a successful homegrown company. “The world is changing, as people’s habits do,” he says. “The secret is to not let yourself become cynical.”
In the beginning, the millstone was just an idea. His grandfather had one until 1952. Then he left it for a more modern one with cylinders. In 1967, Bongiovanni's father took the reins of the company, but in 2001 the mill seemed doomed to close. Bakers always ask for identical flour, something an artisanal operation cannot guarantee.
“One day I told my father I wanted to bring the farm back to life with a traditional millstone. His answer was, ‘You’re crazy. They all got rid of them.’ ” In the end, his mother gave him the money — 10 million of the old lire, or about $6,700.
The boy soon left school and worked hard at the mill. The popularity of organic products brought him new clients, and the turning point came with the Internet and an idea that was revolutionary in its own way. Namely, why would you limit yourself to selling wholesale when you can offer your products directly to the consumers?
Products, products everywhere
A worker is preparing a big carton for Francesco from Naples in southern Italy: flakes for breakfast, corn flour, gluten to cook your own seitan — wheat gluten — and a pot to grow seeds. Another package is headed to Verona in northern Italy. Up to 120 boxes are sent each day. Bongiovanni & Co. sells about 100 different types of flour, from hemp to chestnut. The company also offer grits, cereals, vegetables, muesli, couscous, kneaders, beer kits and driers.
“The company works because we satisfy a real niche: people who need gluten-free products, vegetarians, vegans. And we can offer competitive prices,” says Aldo, wearing a Cuban cap.
The mill is in Villanova Mondovi, where the northern hills turn flat. It’s an ancient farming region of fields, barns (often empty) and cottages. “The crisis hits here as well, and only the ones who know how to reinvent themselves survive,” Aldo says. Bongiovanni & Co.’s turnover for 2012 reached 800,000 euros (over $1 million). He predicts that will grow to $2 million over the next year. It is also possible thanks to his sister, Micaela. “I’m the dreamer, she’s the down-to-earth one,” he says.
Apart from them, there are seven employees. Today 60% of the revenue comes from Internet sales. Aldo maintains a health blog (fysis.it), an e-shop of natural products (tibiona.it) and the mill’s website. On Facebook clients ask for advice on the knead of the bread. He answers everyone, shares recipes and offers discount coupons.
The last revolution carried out by the Bongiovanni family was the transformation of the old mill into a small hydroelectric plant. “Thanks to the turbine and solar panels, our electric bill now equals zero,” says Aldo. “Indeed, the company consumes 60 kilowatts per hour, but we produce 85 and resell the surplus.”
A picture of the Dalai Lama hangs on the walls of the austere office. The Italian crisis, seen from this Disneyland for organic flours, looks like a sickness of the soul. “When you control a company, you can’t allow yourself to be sad. Too many business owners are overwhelmed by the routine.” Aldo’s recipe is simple. “You need to find the energy to learn, update and innovate. Then, yes, ideas pop up all over the place like mushrooms.”