A window on the world

For small and medium-sized businesses the need to expand overseas is of headline importance. Robert Galbraith learns how Intesa Sanpaolo is helping firms in Italy capitalise on the country’s strength as a brand.

Robert Galbraith


‘Made in Italy’ is an enduring brand, a mark of quality which trades as well in America as it does in emerging markets.

But for the country’s small businesses, which have contributed more than any other sector to inspire its success, life in a globalised economy is increasingly complicated.


Where once they might have shunned the idea of accepting support as a threat to their independence, today such firms seek advice on how to maintain their prominence in a fiercely competitive environment.


The office at Intesa Sanpaolo dedicated to company internationalisation has been structured with this in mind. It is an evolving operation aimed at finding businesses looking to expand.

Most companies want to internationalise, but they find it difficult to know how to do it. Our job is to find the ones most likely to succeed and work out a strategy for them.

Says Monica Cristanelli, the department’s head.


Photo: Monica Cristanelli, head of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Internationalisation Office.

It is headquartered in Padua in the north-eastern region of Veneto – for a reason. “Veneto is known for industrial districts whose export-led companies take a dynamic and innovative approach to business and products. It is the region which spearheaded expansion into Eastern Europe and is now moving further afield,” Cristanelli notes.


The office was created in the north-east of Italy, home to many businesses, but serves the whole of the country. Intesa Sanpaolo has the largest bank network in Italy with more than 4,100 branches, 14 per cent market share and 11.1 million clients.


It is concentrated in the richest areas of the country, accounting for 70 per cent of Italian family wealth, much of which has been created through the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses down the generations. It also has subsidiaries or representative offices in all the main markets around the world.

The internationalisation office specialises in areas such as the transfer of production to another country, creation or extension of commercial networks in new markets, finding local partners and the establishment of joint ventures.


Size is no obstacle and most of the Italian businesses which already export are very small.

“Around 65 per cent are micro-businesses, with between one and nine employees, and at least 90 per cent are looking for ways to grow their business – which means expansion abroad”,  
Cristanelli explains.

Intesa Sanpaolo was official global partner at Expo Milano 2015, an event which provided a window on the world for businesses of all sizes. Over the show’s six months, Intesa Sanpaolo brought about 500 companies to a dedicated exhibition space called The Waterston.

“As a global partner, we were the only bank there. It was a tremendous opportunity. It gave us a much better idea of how many companies want and are able to internationalise,” Cristanelli says.

She describes the impact of taking companies to The Waterstone as akin to “an electric shock” because of way it awakened ideas. “It raised awareness of what is possible and reinforced the need for companies to strengthen their profile abroad. It was stimulating for us, too, because we had a stronger idea of what we need to provide.”

The EU has historically been the main market targeted by small to medium-sized companies seeking to export. However, the economic and financial crisis of 2008 forced companies to become more ambitious, first in eastern and central European countries but also the US and China.

"It was no longer a choice but a necessity"
Cristanelli says.


The internationalisation office was and is still –today probably more than before – a response to that need. It now consists of five desks: the Americas, Asia and Oceania, China, EMEA and Eastern Europe. They offer support to managers and specialists operating out of bank branches to provide a rapid response throughout Italy. There are other desks for foreign companies looking to do the same in reverse.

The service is by no means standardised and is instead tailored to the individual needs of the businesses it works with, says Cristanelli.

Intesa Sanpaolo also takes advantage of two specialist platforms: the Opportunity Network is a matching service that allows companies to find partners and form alliances that can boost their business. The Tech MarketPlace is focused on stimulating technological innovation either through the introduction of new processes or finding ways to make existing ones better.

Cristanelli stresses that public agencies and government institutions also have a role to play. The majority of companies operate in sectors such as fashion or design, and see innovation as the key to future success. Foreign companies are similarly inclined, locating production in Italy to exploit expertise in design, engineering and style.

‘Made in Italy’ binds the bank and companies together with a common purpose.

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