Piero Milano is into its second generation and like many of Italy’s artisan family jewelers has found a way to combine family passion, creativity and the love of the good life into a growing and successful company. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, sat down with Andrea Milano to talk about a wide range of subjects from the dos and don’ts of business in Russia to how business brought him his bride.
ET: So maybe just to start, can you give us a little bit of an overview of the history of Piero Milano?
Andrea Milano: Piero Milano was created by my father and my uncle in 1953. It’s been a family business since the beginning; they were helped by their wives who were actually sisters. That was the beginning. Then we were born and we succeeded them in taking over the business. We tried to make it successful and do our best.
ET: And who from the family is in the business today?
Andrea Milano: Today it is me and my two cousins. My cousin, Piero, is taking care of the financials, and Rosella and I are taking care of the jewelry business. I work more on production and designing, and Rosella [Benzi] works more on sales.
ET: So tell us a little bit about the global business as it is today.
Andrea Milano: We are, I’d say, focused mainly abroad from Italy. Even though we have an Italian market, we are focusing on the United States, of course. We have an office in New York. We are focused in Russia, which is a very good market for us today especially for high-end jewelry. And we have just created an office in Hong Kong for the future Chinese market. These are our main areas, but of course, we are selling all over the world—Africa, Japan, South America, Caribbean, wherever.
ET: Now you mentioned China and Russia. A lot of our readers, like you, understand that Russia and China have business opportunities.
Andrea Milano: Russia is today, China maybe will be tomorrow. It is not today yet. China is not yet ready for the high-end jewelry. I mean not ready for a company like mine.
ET: Now you’re already selling in Russia?
Andrea Milano: In Russia, yes, of course. We’ve been selling for 15 years in Russia.
ET: For people who might be thinking about getting into business in Russia, what are some of the things that an entrepreneurial company, like yours, would need to think about if they wanted to be in business there?
Andrea Milano: It’s a lot about the dealer you find. Even though it’s a developing market, the big business is still concentrated in a few dealers in a few cities. It’s not like the United States where you have many cities with different competitors inside the same city. There you have a few main cities—like Moscow, St. Petersburg and then Odessa in the Ukraine—and there are really just a few dealers. So if you find the right one, you’ll have a huge market. If you don’t, you’ll have no market. So it can be big or nothing.
ET: Were there any mistakes that your company made going into Russia?
Andrea Milano: We did, of course, make mistakes. Sometimes we misevaluated dealers. It’s difficult to predict the future.
ET: Obviously the world economy and the United States in particular has had a difficult time. How is that impacting your business?
Andrea Milano: Of course it’s impacting it a lot. The United States is and has been for all the history of the company a very important country for us. In these last years, of course, we’ve have situations there. The main problem is the turnover of our customers [jewelry retailers]. The problem is not only in my company, but for all. So the financials are quite, quite complicated. You know sometimes you have to push some customers and sometimes you have to reduce others. Of course we’re trying to be quite conservative right now. It’s better to keep what we have rather than go into deep water.
ET: Have you made any changes in the product because of what’s happening in the world?
Andrea Milano: Not that much. Maybe you tend to do something less expensive but that is not the problem. It’s not the price of the goods or the price range. It’s more that they sell very slowly wherever you go.
ET: I guess in the jewelry industry, the luxury goods industry, one of the trends has been these big conglomerates keep getting bigger through acquisition and they seemingly have endless pockets. You’re a second generation family company so what are the challenges you face competing against growing conglomerates?
Andrea Milano: I guess being creative and being yourself. We try to do what we like in design, in strategy, and at the moment it’s fine; it’s successful according to our perspective. So I don’t look at them as competitors because I think actually there is a market for everybody.
ET: As you grew up, your father was in the business. How did you get involved in the business? Did you do anything before getting involved in Piero Milano?
Andrea Milano: Well, you know, as I told you, it is a family business. So everyday we were talking about the business and we were playing with watches in the factory when we were kids. After studying I went to work for a diamond company, sorting diamonds. That was a very interesting experience to me because diamond quality and diamond selection is very important for us in order to guarantee to our customer the quality of the product we have.
ET: Did you always know that you were going to come into the family company?
Andrea Milano: Well, when you are young you have desires, but deep in my heart this was the road for me. I still have other wishes. I am involved in some other businesses; we do construction. But it’s always on the side.
ET: So in the family business there’s also a construction business?
Andrea Milano: Yes.
ET: Any other businesses?
Andrea Milano: Not yet.
ET: Okay, not yet. What type of construction?
Andrea Milano: Well, it depends. The one that gave us the most satisfaction was something that we did in Liguria—reconstructing a village that was abandoned a century ago after an earthquake. It was an ancient Italian village. We constructed 65 apartments. It’s very, very cute. Customers came from all over the world, from the United States too. Someone from Los Angeles came and bought something in Italy.
ET: What led you to chose this village and restore it?
Andrea Milano: By chance we had a photo shoot there. The aim of the photographer was to find a contrast between stones, because the village is still made of stones, and jewelry. We found out that we could restore it and we did, but we had many problems because it’s on the top of the mountain. So building techniques were very difficult, but we made it. It was a good thing.
ET: So stepping away from the business for a minute, do you have any hobbies outside the business?
Andrea Milano: I have hobbies, yes. I love to cook, I love to play football, I like to play golf but I have no time. I travel but I travel today mostly for work. I would like to have more time to travel to different places. I need 450 days in a year to do everything.
ET: Where are the places that you’d like to travel that you haven’t been to?
Andrea Milano: Well, I really love Southeast Asia. I really love the people, how they behave, how they face you when you first meet them. I love that area. I’d say it is one of my favorites.
ET: Where are some of your favorite places in Southeast Asia that you’ve been?
Andrea Milano: The big cities: Jakarta, Surabaya, Bangkok. The place doesn’t matter really. It’s more about the people there.
ET: So you mentioned hobbies, you said football and you said golf.
Andrea Milano: For the past twenty years, we’ve played five-against-five football games every Monday with the same people. Actually some kids, sons of my niece, have been joining us. We don’t even call each other, we just meet every Monday night and we play.
ET: What about golf?
Andrea Milano: I love golf, but you need time so I only play sometimes, here and there whenever I have time. Sometimes I play in China, sometimes I play in the United States, in Italy, in the Dominican Republic, wherever I can.
ET: Do you have a handicap?
Andrea Milano: I am handicap 13.
ET: That’s very good. So you must have some favorite golf courses with a 13 handicap.
Andrea Milano: One of my favorite golf courses is in the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo, Teeth of the Dog, which is very famous. I have a house there. Actually my wife is from the Dominican Republic.
ET: Okay, they have the links course.
Andrea Milano: Better weather than Scotland.
ET: Anything’s better weather than Scotland. So you mentioned your wife. Is she in the business also? Does she work with you?
Andrea Milano: We met because she is our dealer in the Dominican Republic. Well, of course, you always meet people on the job because it’s like 24/7.
ET: And do you have a third generation for Piero Milano yet?
Andrea Milano: We are going to have a baby girl in April. And my cousin’s oldest one is 17 already.
ET: Okay, boy or girl?
Andrea Milano: Boy.
ET: And is he in the business or getting in the business?
Andrea Milano: He is studying and doesn’t know yet what he wants to do. And we don’t want to push anything. I mean he has to make his own decision.
ET: What would you have done if you hadn’t gotten into this business?
Andrea Milano: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know because all my life has been inside this business so it’s really difficult to say. What I do like is cooking so let’s say that. But it’s really difficult to imagine doing something other than what I do.
ET: What type of cuisine do you cook? Italian or something else?
Andrea Milano: Well of course Italian. Mostly Italian, but you know, I travel so much that I’m affected by different experiences and cuisine.
ET: So maybe one day you’ll open a restaurant?
Andrea Milano: Maybe, but it’s more a dream. I don’t really have the time to do something like that.
ET: Just going back to the business, obviously you’ve been very successful in growing the business in the second generation. What’s your goal for the next three to five years for Piero Milano? Where would you like to see the business go?
Andrea Milano: Well, for sure we’d like to open some new markets and develop our image in the existing markets too. I told you one aim is China. But we’ll still focus on our main markets, like the United States. And I guess we’ll be waiting for better days. Maybe next year, maybe two years, I don’t care, we can wait.
ET: The aspiration for a lot of jewelry companies is to have their own boutiques and retail stores.
Andrea Milano: Yes, that could be really, really good. I guess the best way to have that would be to develop with our partners today.
ET: I guess I have one last question. Damiani obviously did a listing on the exchange in Milan, and you see conglomerates continuing to swallow up unique companies so do you ever, as a family, think about the future in that way?
Andrea Milano: I think you have to consider doing a listing or forming partnerships but a partnership can be good or bad. You have to have the same direction, the same ideas. With those characteristics, I think there is a way to grow. So I don’t know. Going public or having partners can be a great way to develop, but we’ll see what happens.