As a United Nations soldier in Mozambique, Milano Unica‘s newly appointed president, Ercole Botto Poala, had a lot of time to think about the misuse of a country’s resources as he marched through thick fertile jungle ravaged by civil war.
About 20 years later, the 44-year-old father of toddler twins and co-heir and chief executive officer of his family’s upscale textile company, Reda 1865, Botto Poala is faced with the challenge of how to drive exports of Italian textiles in an age where its key markets are saturated and some are registering slowing sales.
The new frontier is the Internet, Botto Poala explained in the boardroom of the Biella-based company his family bought after the Spanish flu of World War I wiped out the Reda family’s heirs.
“We need to understand way in advance the potential of this new market share,” he said. “Ten years ago, the system was antiquated compared to today, and 10 years from now…a lot can change.”
Only about 0.1 percent of the companies affiliated with Milano Unica sell textiles online, and many are reticent to even consider the notion, as most of their clients purchase after having physically touched the material and negotiated eye-to-eye on price.
But the market is changing, especially with hassle-free e-tailers like Bonobos.com and Indochino wetting the fashion-forward male population’s appetite for online fabric commerce.
Today, Botto Poala explained, players like Yoox and Zalando are established online multibrand stores and tomorrow they could create their own lines as private labels and they will need Italian know-how and goods to fuel those lines, as do many top multibrand stores.
“In my opinion, one of the main goals for Milano Unica will be to match these new worlds emerging in the online market with the traditional world of all the exhibitors in order to understand if there are mutual benefits to take advantage of,” Botto Poala said.
Ahead of the textile e-commerce race is U.S.-based Sundar, a game-changing Web-mobile site launched last year by banker turned entrepreneur Jag Gill. Sundar is a business-t0-business start-up that unites global and local textile makers, artisans and international fashion professionals from Mumbai to Milan.
Reda has already begun to sell some of its products like its Reda Rewoolution activewear garments online. But even for the 150-year-old company that sells to top fashion brands like Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander, there is still the potential to sell more on the Internet.
Among other major peers, wool textile mill Lanificio Vitale Barberis Canonico said it has just started selling a few fabrics through a distributor in Bologna, but the platform is still in the zygote stage.
The government, Botto Poala said, needs to play more of a role in aiding small players in not only setting up online business, but also in marketing and communications.
“We don’t need money from the government, we just need them to help smaller players to grow their business on an international level,” Botto Poala said.
Botto Poala said Italian companies across the board need to jump on the bandwagon.
“If we sell our fabric directly B2B, then the next step will be B2C,” he added.
Armando Branchini, vice chairman of the Altagamma luxury association, said family-run textile firms need to alter the way they think of online commerce.
“We need to start thinking also about pre-commerce, communications and marketing,” Branchini said. “People make a huge mistake thinking that the Web is only for e-commerce.”
The real challenge for Botto Poala, he explained, isn’t just about chartering new markets, it is also going to involve uniting fabric makers from the shores of Lake Como to the river banks of the Arno who prefer to show at Première Vision in France, rather than at home.
“Milano Unica has to be the number-one exhibition in the world,” Branchini said.
Taroni SpA president and owner Michele Canepa said, “We prefer Première Vision, where 80 percent of the people we meet are foreign: 40 percent are French and 40 percent come from other countries in markets where we have less competition. Milan is less attractive because it is more difficult to reach and less attractive than Paris.”
Following the presidencies of Paolo Zegna, Pierluigi Loro Piana and Silvio Albini, Botto Poala is the youngest ever president of Milano Unica.
Groomed in a region where textiles dominate the way of life, most of Botto Poala’s friends came from textile families. He went to a technical textile high school and spent summers working at the mill, especially if his grades were poor, which landed him cleaning the company’s toilets more than a few times, he said.
Outside of his janitorial duties, other odd jobs in the Reda universe included a short-lived position sheering sheep at the family’s farm in New Zealand to working on the graphic team, which he said was his favorite role in the company.
He played a key role in promoting Reda through the Asian continent. He was the first in his family to forge and book business in China.
In terms of products, Botto Poala was the driving force behind the company’s revolutionary line Reda Active, which has played a major role in renewing wool’s role as a major component of sportswear.
Reda’s company sales have risen to 80 million euros, or $97.2 million, from 71 million euros, or $87.3 million, since Botto Poala inherited the role of ceo from his uncle in 2003. The company estimates that revenue could rise to 85 million euros, or $100 million in 2015.
Fabrizio Servente, global strategy advisor of The Woolmark Co. said that the move to elect Botto Poala was in line with Milano Unica’s strategy to further market the fair’s image globally.
“Ercole is a person that is forward-thinking, he follows in the footsteps of Paolo Zegna, Pier Luigi Loro Piana and Silvio Albini,” Servente said. “They painted very dynamic roles as president. He will play this card very well.”
Botto Poala is hesitant to map out a clear strategy, but he recognizes he is one of the first in the Italian textile sector to admit that the Internet is a potential frontier.
“I have not a recipe to promote the e-commerce as textile producers and I am not so bold to say I can teach it to the others. I just have a view, I’m convinced that the future of distribution will pass through this channel as well,” he added.