Silvio Benigno Crespi
Cotton and destiny
It is likely that there was just a tiny bit of cotton in Silvio Crespi’s blood.
His grandfather, but especially his father, pursued their dreams of becoming cotton businessmen at the beginning of the 19th century, and Silvio could do no less, it was in his DNA.
He was born in Milan on 24 September 1868, and after his first baptism, he experienced a second on 25 July 1878, when his father, Cristoforo, bestowed upon him the privilege of throwing the first handful of raw cotton in the loader. Thus it was Silvio who launched production at the factory in Crespi d’Adda.
A young man with plenty of initiative
Silvio was raised in Milan as well as the growing company town. While he was studying law at Pavia, he spent his holidays travelling and working abroad, driven by his experience in the business and his own resourcefulness.
He was fascinated by manufacturing, business and applying scientific innovations in the factory. He set out for places where manufacturing had made the biggest advances: France, Germany and Great Britain. He learned his trade on the job, and picked up the local languages as well, which became useful later in life when he undertook more complex diplomatic engagements.
Graduation and his first job
Nel 1889 si laurea con una tesi su un argomento caro ai cotonieri dal titolo “L’arbitrato nelle controversie commerciali”. Poco prima del Natale dello stesso anno il padre gli offre la procura generale e la direzione tecnica dello stabilimento.
A soli 21 anni può esercitare la compravendita dei cotoni, stipulare contratti di trasporto, acquistare macchinari, accettare e girare cambiali a nome della ditta Benigno Crespi. Non male vista l’età.
In 1889, he graduated after completing his thesis on a subject that was very important to cotton manufacturers, “Arbitration in commercial disputes”. Just before Christmas of the same year, his father offered him a job as the general manager and technical supervisor of the factory.
At only 21 years, he had the power to buy and sell cotton, stipulate transportation contracts, purchase machinery, and accept and endorse promissory notes on behalf of the Benigno Crespi company. Not bad for his age.
Father and son
Silvio worked closely with his father, who was happy to let him take the initiative, providing support and financing his ideas for developing both the factory and the town. In addition to growing his family’s business, Silvio also moved skilfully in the circles of important manufacturing and financial businessmen and he became involved in issues that were important to him, such as custom tariffs.
But he did not stop there. In 1893, he and other business leaders sponsored an association for cotton manufacturers and the trading company and became its president.
Accidents and health
In 1894, at the International Convention on workplace accidents and social insurance, Silvio presented an article entitled, “Some methods for preventing accidents and ensuring the life and health of labourers in the Italian cotton industry”. The article is important because it provides a depiction of his company town, which was still under construction, as well as Silvio’s understanding of social issues and methods for preventing and reducing conflicts between social classes.
Here is a sample: “After finishing his work day, the labourer should return happily to his home. The manager should make sure that his home is comfortable, quiet and peaceful. Take advantage of all means necessary to increase his affection and love of his home. A person who loves his home also loves his family and country, and will never fall prey to bad habits or slothfulness. The best moments of the day for a foresighted businessman are those in which he sees the healthy children of his employees scampering in blossoming gardens, running to meet their fathers as they contentedly return home from work; or when the employee relaxes and sets out to work in his little vegetable plot or on his tidy, ordered home. This is when the executive experiences a sort of utopia, a picture of perfect domestic bliss, when the employer and the employee exchange a knowing glance reflecting their straightforward and sincere bond. It is at that moment that concerns about ridiculous class struggles disappear and the heart opens to the higher ideals of peace and universal love.”
Eliminating the night shift
The Italian cotton industry suffered a period of crisis between 1892 and 1896. “Benigno Crespi” struggled, but was able to survive the difficulties.
Worried that the cotton industry was dangerously close to overproduction, Silvio asked the Cotton Manufacturers Association to agree to reduce production levels. His proposal was not well received, but even more unpopular was his request to eliminate the night shift in factories, especially for women and children.
The issue was so hotly debated that in 1897, Silvio was forced to resign the presidency.
Silvio’s vision included integrated textile manufacturing, and in 1896, he not only expanded the spinning department, but also opened the weaving department with 320 mechanical looms.
Meanwhile, some of the machinery began to be powered by electricity and the workplace was equipped with incandescent lighting.
A few years later, Silvio completed his integrated production by introducing the dyeing and finishing departments, putting his brother Daniele in charge.
Silvio in Parliament
“Benigno Crespi” began to expand internationally, but in Italy, Silvio found a new undertaking, politics. In 1899, he was elected to Parliament for the Caprino Bergamasco precinct for the Liberal Party.
He was bursting with enthusiasm, and in Rome he quickly became the leader of a group known as the “young Turks”. They were named for their decidedly liberal bent and their strong opposition to any government intervention in economic activity.
Taccani power station on the Adda River
Nel 1904 insieme al padre Silvio avvia la Società anonima per le forze idrauliche di Trezzo sull’Adda di cui diventa presidente. È la pietra angolare su cui si fonda la Centrale Taccani che verrà aperta due anni dopo.
In 1904, Silvio and his father established the Trezzo sull’Adda hydraulic power company, with Silvio acting as president. This was the cornerstone for the launch of the Taccani power station, which was opened two years later.
Silvio and engines
While Cristoforo loved horses and carriages, Silvio understood the potential of the automobile from the very beginning. He felt compelled to visit the places that were innovating in this area. He was so enthusiastic that in 1905 he became president of the Milan Automobile Club and later, the Italian Automobile Club.
The Club’s activities involved organising trailblazing races and developing a more widespread road system.
Passing the baton
In 1906, Cristoforo suffered a stroke that seriously impaired his mental faculties. Although Silvio was already effectively running “Benigno Crespi”, with his father’s illness he assumed complete control.
He began focusing even greater attention on product quality. During a period of economic crisis for the company, exports helped keep it afloat.
Daniele’s removal from the company
Silvio’s younger brother, Daniele, was appointed the manager of the dyeing and finishing departments. The two brothers could not have been more different. Daniele loved the good life and gambling, and he squandered his money without a second thought. He lost so much that his father had to draw significant sums from the company’s coffers to settle his debts.
Daniele was so irresponsible that Silvio also had to provide support, and Silvio became concerned about the gaping hole in the company’s accounts caused by Daniele. Silvio did not wish to force his father out of the company he had started and who, suffering from illness, was incapable of dealing with Daniele, so Silvio found an unusual way to divide the inheritance, known as ante mortem de cuius. Silvio set up a separate company, devising a clever way to remove Daniele from management. After his removal, Daniele warned that he would commit suicide, but did not act on his threats.
Beginning in 1910, Silvio owned the relative majority of the company, and became vice president, chief executive officer and general manager.
While he was facing conflicts within the family, Silvio also found the strength to wrangle with other members of Parliament. In 1905, he opposed the transfer of the railways to government control, and in 1911, he opposed the plan to set up a public monopoly for life insurance.
The tower dominates across the globe
Although facing difficulties on many fronts, in the years prior to the First World War Silvio’s company experienced great success.
More efficient machinery was purchased to replace older models. Raw cotton from India, the United States and Egypt was transformed into high quality products. The factory produced cloth, poplins, damasks, velvets, satins and raw satins. The product quality was considered equivalent to that of British goods. Most of the machinery could be found in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland and the manpower was highly trained after thirty years in the business.
Crespi’s products had a logo featuring either a tower, similar to the one constructed on the roof of the foremost part of the factory, or a fan, because in the local dialect of Milan, Crespin was the word for “fan”.
First World War
The First World War arrived in Crespi at a difficult time. Cristoforo was forced to auction his collection of paintings to settle Daniele’s debts.
Paradoxically, the war was good for business, as the government ordered cloth for airplanes. “Benigno Crespi” was working at full production capacity and had reinstated night shifts, leading Silvio to decide to expand the plant during the war.
Silvio as minister
On 24 October 1917, Italy was defeated at Kobarid. As a result, Prime Minister Orlando appointed Silvio Crespi as Undersecretary of the Interior for food provisioning and consumption and, shortly after, he was designated Minister with the same function.
Crespi brought his business experience to the role, and his organisational skills were important for this confusing bureaucratic mechanism. He was able to obtain a great deal of assistance, particularly from England, which eased the military’s food shortage issues, but not those of the civilian population, who were subject to severe rationing until the middle of 1918.
The results Silvio achieved earned him a central role in the difficult post-war era, and he was appointed as the Italian representative to the Supreme Allied Council on Provisioning. His political/diplomatic commitments led him to be nominated as a Plenipotentiary Minister and he was one of the signers of the peace agreement with Germany, which he wrote about in his memoir entitled “In defence of Italy at war and at Versailles”.
Banca Commerciale Italiana (Italian Commercial Bank)
On 23 October 1919, Silvio Crespi was appointed President of Banca Commercial Italiana. This had important consequences for the town.
The loans that his company had taken out with the bank at the end of the 1920s led to him having to resign from management of the factory and later the presidency of the bank.
Although he was busy with his institutional commitments, Silvio did not forget his family’s business; in fact, he advocated expanding both the factory and the town. Between 1919 and 1921, Italy and the rest of the world yearned to return to normal life, driving an increase in demand for consumer products. And textiles were part of this increased demand. For this reason, Silvio and his son Benigno, who had become his right-hand man in the business, made new investments in the latest machinery and hired more employees.
Although initially their decisions were justified by higher profits, by the end of 1921 demand had already begun to wane, and there were other problems on the horizon as well.
Trade unions and strikes
While Silvio was very busy, working for Banca Commerciale Italiana and staying in Paris to resolve some issues with his health, in 1919, 40 years after the start-up of the factory, experienced its first industrial action. And union struggles began to reach the town.
Silvio came back to Crespi and seemed to have the situation under control, but union ideas had already taken root with the workers, particularly the Catholic movement, which was the strongest and most established in the area, led by the charismatic Romano Cocchi.
Goodbye to the founder
Cristoforo died on 5 January 1920. Despite the ongoing social tensions, the town wanted to give him a proper memorial. Silvio took this opportunity to try to strengthen the bond between the Crespi family and the town. He promised to build twelve new homes for the workers, began planning a velodrome and organised trips and shows, but it was not enough.
The workers had other ideas – they asked for a 50% increase in salaries. A national labour agreement had recently been signed that included a 25% increase, the maximum that Silvio was prepared to concede. But the workers at Crespi had no intention of giving in.
Protests and strikes were organised.
The Capriate incident
Romano Cocchi announced a walkout on 1 February 1920. On the same day, Silvio called an internal meeting to explain the new contract to the employees. Almost no one attended his meeting. Many of the workers were in Capriate at Cocchi’s protest.
Cocchi has just finished his speech when Silvio arrived at the protest. In the confusion, he thought he heard someone call him a profiteer. Whether or not this is true is debatable. However, Silvio went to the podium to defend himself, but he was blocked by the crowd. There was a scuffle and the police intervened. Crespi had to be escorted back to the factory. The event became known as “The Capriate incident”.
In the weeks following the incident, as the strikes and tensions continued, Silvio adopted two parallel strategies. During the most hostile moments, he made sure that law enforcement kept the situation under control, while at the same time, he worked to improve the town’s social aspects. He inaugurated a monument to fallen soldiers, organised band concerts, tamburello and football tournaments and religious festivals. In 1921, he opened a co-op store for workers and celebrated the one-year anniversary of the sports association with running and cycling races.
Fascism in Crespi
At the end of 1921, a new crisis struck the textile industry. And the factory at Crespi was not immune to its effects. However, Silvio did have one reason to celebrate: Romano Cocchi was removed from the leadership of the Catholic trade union and had less effect on the area’s workers. On 1 August 1922, a general strike was called throughout Italy, but the factory at Crespi was working as usual. Alarmed by the increasing protests, on 28 October, Silvio and other business leaders in Lombardy urged the King to hand over the government to Mussolini.
Cars and speed
Silvio had always had a keen interest in technological innovation and the automobile was an important symbol of progress. In 1921, as President of the Italian Automobile Club, he organised the first Italian Grand Prix. It was held on the Brescia Montichiari track. There were more than 150,000 spectators, including the king, who chatted with Silvio during the race and, perhaps, suggested to move the race to Milan.
Whether it was upon royal advice or simply an individual decision, Crespi began work to build the Monza racetrack in 1922. Construction began on 15 May and was completed in three months. On 3 September the first race was held, won by a Fiat 501 model race car.
But Silvio’s passion for cars and racing did not end there. In 1923, he promoted the construction of a motorway linking Milan to the lakes, the first of its kind in Europe. Thus began the modern age of transportation.
The golden years
The return to normalcy began on 25 March 1923, when the local fascist party was inaugurated.
Between 1923 and 1925, government policies resulted in a dramatic increase in exports. “Benigno Crespi” textiles reached markets across the globe. The extraordinary growth led Silvio to make significant investments. He increased the number of spindles and looms and hired more workers, reaching 3,600 in 1928.
At the same time, he increased the services available to the town’s residents. On 9 September 1923, Silvio inaugurated the new velodrome and a few weeks later, accompanied 400 employees on a trip to Genoa.
At the end of 1925, Mussolini announced a revaluation of the lira currency, known as “Quota 90”. Silvio was disappointed and worried, and tried several times to convince him not to go ahead with the proposal. However, he was unsuccessful. As a result, textile exports fell by 50%.
Silvio reduced working hours, but the losses were staggering. In addition, unpaid customer invoices amounted to 6,000,000 lire in 1927. It was unsustainable even for “Benigno Crespi”.
In 1928, the factory had 69,000 spindles, 1,200 mechanical looms and a large dyeing department that was capable of turning out at least 50,000 metres of textiles every day. Despite this, losses for the first half of the year were 1,700,000 lire.
Ironically, the beginning of the end of the Crespi venture coincided with its 50th anniversary. It was decided to celebrate the milestone on 24 September, Silvio’s 60th birthday.
The festivities included a parade and awarding of medals, with several dignitaries attending, and a telegram of congratulations from Mussolini. In addition, Silvio gave a speech and inaugurated the new recreational club, adjacent to the church, which included a library, banquet room and meeting rooms. The fireworks in the evening were unforgettable, but were the last concrete traces of the Crespi family in the town.
Over the course of 1929, the company’s situation had become extremely worrisome. Not only had sales fallen, but Silvio had recently made a poor decision in purchasing raw cotton. “Benigno Crespi” was in debt for approximately 40 million lire to Banca Commerciale Italiana, of which Silvio was president.
The conflict of interest was of no concern to Giuseppe Toeplitz, the bank’s chief executive officer, who believed that the value of the factory was greater than the debt. In April, Silvio met with Mussolini to find a solution not only for his business, but also for the whole industry. Initially, Silvio’s proposal to merge several of the failing cotton manufacturers seemed to have Mussolini’s approval, but after Black Thursday (24 October), the plan fell apart.
In the initial months of 1930, with no alternative solutions, a company was established that merged the cotton manufacturers “Benigno Crespi”, “Veneziano” and “Manifatture Toscane”.
Banca Commerciale Italiana was the majority shareholder. At this point, Toeplitz required more guarantees and Silvio was forced to step down. The family’s shares in “Benigno Crespi” were sold to Banca Commerciale as well as personal assets, including the mansion in Via Borgonuovo, in Milan.
On 1 November 1930, Silvio was forced to resign as president of the Bank.
The fate of the merged company of Benigno Crespi-Veneziano-Toscane, of which Silvio was president, was already determined. Banca Commerciale put someone they trusted in charge of the company, Bruto Belli. But Belli and Silvio did not get along and Belli felt constrained in the Crespi atmosphere, so in 1931 he changed the name to S.T.I. and Benigno Crespi’s name disappeared from the company forever.
However, changing the name could not change the facts, and the company closed 1931 with a loss of 40 million lire.
Management of the company was a constant struggle, so in 1932, Silvio decided to completely remove himself from the organisation, although in his heart he had a goal, or perhaps only a dream, of returning. He tried to involve Mussolini several times in his comeback, but the matter was of little interest to Mussolini.
After 1936, S.T.I. was led by Bruno Canto, who held the position until 1957. Silvio was able to repurchase the mansion in Via Borgonuovo, but he was never able to take back the reins of his company.
He decided to dedicate himself to other industrial initiatives, including container production, which did not achieve the desired results, and led to a new business proposal, managing a milk sterilisation facility. It is strange to think that the demise of one of the most influential figures of the last 40 years was marked by two completely different requests, both involving Mussolini.
On one hand, Silvio sent Il Duce some bottle of milk, asking his opinion on its quality. On the other hand, he proposed to create a group of volunteers who were prepared to sacrifice their lives in a mission to bomb England, much like kamikazes.
The bottles were returned empty, but there was no response to the suicide mission.
In the summer of 1943, during the bombing of Milan, the mansion in Via Borgonuovo was hit. A large part of the family’s archives was lost in the fire. It was the final blow for Silvio.
He took refuge with his daughter in Cadorago, near Como, and died on 15 January 1944.