In February I was invited to tag along with a group of dealers and their customers as they paid a visit to telehandler manufacturer Merlo’s assembly plant just outside the historic old city of Cuneo, Italy.
When everyone had arrived, we stood on a balcony at the plant and watched several telehandlers go through a well-rehearsed routine, with drivers skilfully manoeuvering their way around a specially designed demonstration course below us.
Today, I think of that opportunity to look down on the machines as kind of symbolic of what I was able to bring away with me from my time there. That’s because not only was I able to get a bird’s-eye view of the telehandlers on the demonstration course, I had ample opportunity to talk shop with senior executives of the company, including the owner.
In this way, I was able to get more than one view from above, sitting down with the people who have actually created and who continue to grow a company as significant as Merlo. It’s a rare privilege that most of us never get, but in Cuneo, I was able to do that over the course of a couple of days and share a bottle — well, bottles — of good Italian wine in the process.
While Merlo is a prominent manufacturer of tele-handlers supplying a global market, it is not really a corporate giant on the scale of, say, John Deere. And it remains a family-owned firm.
Today, its machines are sold across Canada through a mix of corporate and privately owned dealerships, which are now focussing strongly on the ag market.
While speaking with some of the company’s executive team, I wasn’t all that surprised by some of the things I heard. For instance, I heard that the brands that constantly innovate and push technology forward in their respective markets are those most likely to survive in the long term. And that within its factory and offices, there is a need to make even rank-and-file employees feel like an important part of the company’s overall operation.
But I also saw and heard some very unexpected things about this company’s management, most notably about the owner, Amilcare Merlo, who is now 82 years old.
Despite his age, Merlo remains an extremely dynamic influence and is clearly still at the helm of this ship. He can be found in the office nearly every day at an age when most people consider themselves well past the need to participate in the workaday world.
What is even more remarkable is how he remains a strong leader who inspires and motivates his executive team to a level many corporate executives only dream of.
Having had the chance to observe and meet him on various occasions over a couple of days, it was clear Mr. Merlo (as he is affectionately referred to by all his staff) moves with the energy of someone half his age. And he displays a genuine passion for his firm.
As he made his first appearance shortly after our group’s arrival, he entered the room as the dealers and customers were about to have lunch in a company dining room at the factory. He waded slowly through the group, pausing frequently and welcoming his guests personally, lingering with most for more than just a handshake.
Although neatly dressed wearing a jacket and tie, he presented an unassuming appearance. His suit, however, certainly didn’t come from fellow Italian Armani’s product line. Other than being by far the oldest person in the room, his overall appearance blended seamlessly with his staff and customers.
Often if you talk to enough people at a company, someone will express some level of dissatisfaction with the corporation. This time everyone I spoke to on his management team — and I spoke to a lot of them —expressed nothing but admiration for the passion and energy their octogenarian boss continues to bring to the firm. One described him as a “role model” while another used the word “inspiration.”
“Last Sunday he called me four times with different ideas,” said a member of the marketing staff, with a broad smile that suggested he was proud to be the one to get the calls, even though it was his day off.
Mr. Merlo also has a reputation for generosity with his employees, lending financial or other support to anyone in the firm who was going through a difficult time.
“He told me once if you ever hear of anyone that is in trouble, anyone, you let me know,” a senior staffer said.
And he is known for seeking out opinions, and for listening to anyone with a new idea. That became apparent when my scheduled interview with him ended and he immediately began interviewing me. Which models of his machines did I think would most interest farmers in Western Canada, he wanted to know, and why? What specifications would they require? What would they be used to lift, and how high?
Later during that lunch at the company office, Mr. Merlo sat down at my table, which was on the edge of the room. A few moments later he stood up and took his plate. “Excuse me,” he said. He walked to the other side of the table and sat down again, this time with his back to the wall. Leaning in toward me he said in his heavy Italian accent, “I don’t want to turn my back on the people.”
At the moment, Mr. Merlo is shepherding his firm through a 150 million euro reinvestment focused on technology and automation to enhance product quality.
“We think this (enhanced build quality) will be a kind of warranty,” he told the dealer group.
“He told me, ‘I’m not thinking too much about the future, I’m only planning for the next 35 years,’” recounted another executive with a laugh. “But that’s Mr. Merlo.”
At a farewell dinner for the dealers at a small restaurant at the foot of the nearby Italian Alps, Mr. Merlo made time to pose for a personal photo with every single member of the visiting group. After the evening events wrapped up, he spotted me in the crowd and shook my hand, pulling me near and putting his other hand on my forearm in what seems to be his trademark style.
“I’m showing a new agricultural machine in Paris in a few weeks,” he confided quietly. “It will have a lift capacity of five tonnes, not four.” Clearly he’d been pondering our previous discussion about what specifications would best suit prairie farmers. “I’ll send you a picture of it,” he promised as we said our goodbyes.
I’m wondering now, does this mean I should expect a phone call on Sunday!