Born in Brescia in 1963, Piero Gandini looked to be an unlikely candidate to succeed his father as head of Flos, Italy’s leading designer lighting producer. He describes his teenage years as a wild time, in which his school attendance was irregular and he devoted his life to socialising with his friends. Today, however, he is CEO of the family company, working with many of the world’s greatest designers to create innovative lamps sold across the globe.
‘My father did not know what to do with me when I was a teenager,’ he says. ‘So after military service he decided to send me to work at the company’s German subsidiary. Located in the small town of Euskirchen near Cologne, it was not a great place for a young Italian, but without distractions I found that I liked it a lot, learnt the language and got into a rhythm at work.’
So great was the transformation that his father called him back to the head office after just two years. He was launching new brands and said that he wanted ‘young blood’ to manage them. So in 1988 at the age of 25, Piero Gandini became involved with the real essence of the company – design strategy and development.
‘I knew a lot about design because I grew up with it. It was central to my father’s job, and my mother was an interior designer for major shops in Italy, so my passion for it was in my blood. And I really liked working with Flos’s Italian designers such Achille Castiglioni and Tobia Scarpa.
‘After six months, I asked my father if I could have my own team, and he agreed. I found an old factory, renovated it and hired four young guys. We worked with the likes of Philippe Starck, the young French designer whose Miss Sissi lamp reinvented the bedside light. It was a lot of fun to develop the strategy for a top-quality family company – and at the age of 26, I realised that working for it was my destiny.’
A chance to prove oneself
Piero Gandini says that he enjoyed working with his father. ‘At school, there was always pressure, and nobody ever told you that you were doing well. But my father gave me a lot of responsibility for the development of the Flos brand, and also the freedom to make mistakes – a most precious gift. Some moves were successful, others not – but I had the chance to prove myself.’
He admits that it was not easy at first, as the son of the man who was effectively in control of the business and who was known to have made a success of it. ‘The challenge was to gain respect and credibility, because other people did not know who I was and why I had been brought into the company.
‘After a couple of years, I made a decision to create a product which my father disagreed with. But it turned out to be very successful and brought the company a lot of favourable publicity. Out of the blue, this gave me real credibility in the company and people looked at me differently. You have to show people that you are not scared to take decisions, even if there is opposition – to demonstrate leadership and achieve results.’
In 1992, his father was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 60 and given one year to live. In fact, he survived for seven years, but he was getting weaker all the time and also had an important role in a large financial company. So the 29-year-old Piero Gandini had to step up and take more responsibility – learning fast what was needed to keep the company going.
He was appointed Chief Executive in 1996, and promoted to Chairman in 1999, the year that his father died. In the top job, he internationalised the business, which now has a global presence in the Middle East, Asia and the Americas as well as in the rest of Europe. Most of its production is still in Italy and Spain, however, with around 80 per cent of its output exported.
The group diversified into architectural lighting for hotels, offices, shops and other public buildings with the acquisition in 2005 of Antares, a Spanish brand. Other new products have included outdoor lighting, and Flos has also developed expertise in lighting museums and holy places. Among museum projects were Venice’s Palazzo Grassi and Rome’s Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee. Religious projects have included the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, and Cremona’s cathedral.
He also stepped up the drive for innovation by asking more great designers to work with Flos – they included Italy’s Antonio Citterio, the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders and Patricia Urquiola from Spain. He also opened the door to new talent such as the Israeli designer Ron Gilad and Joris Laarman of the Netherlands, encouraging them to experiment and break design rules, sometimes subversively.
He sees the biggest challenge for the lighting industry today as the technological revolution in lamps, which are inexorably passing from filament bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The latter can be connected to chips, which potentially allows lamps to connect with other devices and do much more than casting light. In architectural lighting, they could be integrated with sensors to provide services such as space control, lighting effects, health monitoring, security protection and measuring footfall in retail outlets.
‘Providing light is just a part of what lamps can do: unlike furniture, they are integral to buildings and can be a Trojan horse that connects them to the internet of things. The technology is not fully there yet, and we will need a new culture to harness it by developing devices, connectivity, data distribution and cloud storage, for example. But a new world is coming, for sure.’
In 2014, Piero Gandini surprised the lighting world by selling an 80 per cent stake in Flos to Investindustrial, the Italian private equity firm which also owns luxury carmaker Aston Martin. At the age of 51, he is remaining with the group but felt it was a good time to make the move, rather than hang on until he is much older. And he thought it better not to impose the family company on the next generation.
‘I have three daughters, two still at high school and the third is graduating in comparative literature at King’s College in London. My twin sister, who is a doctor in Florence, has two even younger daughters. If any of them love design and want to become involved in the company, they will have the chance to do so if I am still running it.’
He also sees the family-owned Investindustrial as a good partner which wants to help Flos continue to grow and develop. ‘What drives us has always been a genuine passion for innovation and finding new languages, attracting contemporary avant-garde people who can make a real contribution to society. We could expand our design expertise from lighting to other objects, but we will always aim to be leaders in innovation.’