Family, the future and farfalle: talking pasta with Paolo Barilla

Family, the future and farfalle: talking pasta with Paolo Barilla

by Ollie Lloyd 24 February 2016

Ollie Lloyd visits Parma to sit down with the vice president of Barilla and learns all about the world's largest pasta producer.

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Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Paolo Barilla is a man who feels the weight of history and understands the importance of legacy. As one of three brothers who together run Barilla, the world’s largest pasta business, he is striving to maintain and grow a company that has already lasted four generations. His great-grandfather, Pietro Barilla, founded the business in 1877 when he opened a bread and pasta shop in Parma that became very popular with local foodies. It is now the number one pasta brand in Italy, the USA, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. They produce over 150 varieties of pasta and sell 1,821 million tonnes globally.

I met Paolo Barilla at the company’s headquarters in Parma, a place that is of course already renowned for fine Parma ham, Parmesan and in 2015 was named as a ‘creative city for gastronomy’ by UNESCO. The original factory was in the center of the city and now houses the Academia Barilla, a culinary center set up a decade ago to promote and safeguard Italian cuisine in all its guises. The new factory is out of town, next to the head office and employs around 500 people, making it the largest pasta factory in the world. It is an awe-inspiring sight full of robots, people on bicycles, huge ovens and the wonderful smell of pasta.

Paolo explained to me that, in his view, businesses exist ‘not because you want them to, but because others want you to exist’. His philosophy turns the image of the all-powerful CEO on its head and exposes the short-term thinking that plagues so many businesses that are driven by quarterly results. He believes that it is his role, and the role of all who work at Barilla, to be caretakers for the future.

There is an important episode in Barilla's history that clearly shaped much of Paolo’s thinking. He was ten years old when his father was forced to sell the business. Italy was a complex place in the 1970s, as a left wing paramilitary organization called the Red Brigade were assassinating and kidnapping key figures during a period known as ‘The Years of Lead’. Paolo’s uncle wanted to leave all this behind and move to Switzerland; this, combined with financial pressures within the business due to the creation of a new factory, meant the brothers were forced to sell in 1971. During this period Paolo recalled that his father, Pietro Barilla, was constantly in a bad mood and never satisfied. He believed his father felt guilty that he hadn’t evolved the business he had inherited; merely selling it instead. Thankfully, Pietro managed to buy the business back in 1979 and went on to lay the foundations for the Barilla that exists today.

Barilla produces over 150 varieties of pasta
Barilla production
As the world's most popular pasta producer, it sells 1,821 million tonnes globally every year

Investing in the future

Barilla is a business that is obsessed with quality and understands it has a role to play in the complex world of food production. The company is now run by three brothers – Paolo, Guido and Luca – and their father Pietro instilled the idea that their mission is to give ‘people food that you would give to your own children'. It is this mantra that drives much of what they do. As Paolo says: ’If you want to carry on an activity forever, you have to invest in quality. If you are driven only by profit, you will ultimately make decisions for the wrong reasons and the outcome in the long term is clear.’

When you dig into how the team at Barilla sources the raw materials for their pasta, you understand how this mantra is realized on a daily basis. They don’t buy raw materials on faceless exchanges; instead, they work with thousands of farmers and help them to improve their product year on year. They believe in crop rotation and strive to support these farmers in their quest to reduce their environmental impact and costs. The company has invested in technology that gives its farmers insight into when specific activities are best undertaken and when to wait weather patterns out. They aren’t only looking at their part of the production process; they are looking at their impact end to end.

Paolo and his brothers aren’t scared of change and accept that new ideas and ventures are good. They have recently built a train line, a bit like a Hornby model from a distance, that runs directly into the factory. It has been designed to more efficiently deliver the raw materials needed for pasta production right into the heart of the factory. This is a major investment but it is good for the planet due to reduced CO2 emissions; something the company is devoutly dedicated to through its ‘Good for the Planet’ campaign (which also aims to reduce water usage). For Paolo and his siblings there is only one way to run a successful business – to constantly improve their products, motivate people to adopt healthy lifestyles and make sure food is available to all.

Barilla advert
Barilla has become famous for its various successful advertising campaigns
Wheat farm
The company dedicates a lot of its time to ensuring sustainable farming practices with its suppliers

Shifting gears

Italian foodies are not known for embracing change and famously almost ruined the career of Massimo Bottura as he challenged tradition. When I asked Paolo if his great-grandfather would recognise the pasta they produce today, he admits he would – but that it has evolved. He notes that tastes have changed and that their products have evolved with these tastes, becoming far more consistent in terms of quality. Some companies would stick to tradition and refuse to evolve, but that does not appear to be the Barilla way; they are prepared to change and for the right reasons, forever listening to their customers, suppliers and partners. Paolo was a racing car driver throughout the 1980s (even winning Le Mans in 1985), a role that requires focus, determination, teamwork and constant improvement. It seems these are virtues he has continued to display at Barilla.

There are clearly challenges with running a family business and it sounds like the brothers have their fair share of debates, but they are driven by a sense of history and understand that compromise is vital to progress. There is a bigger story here and they are only a chapter; the business has a strong moral compass and is on a mission to get more people in the UK and around the world to eat more great pasta. As a foodie and an entrepreneur, it is rare to be inspired by such a large food producer. However, Paolo Barilla left me feeling that his great-grandfather’s legacy is in safe hands and that there is much we can learn from his chosen path.

Paolo was a racing car driver throughout the 1980s (even winning Le Mans in 1985), a role that requires focus, determination, teamwork and constant improvement. It seems these are virtues he has continued to display at Barilla.

Ollie Lloyd