Winning the Top Non-Family Director Award at this year’s European Families in Business Awards is just the latest in a series of accolades for Monica Mondardini. The trailblazing chief executive of CIR Group tells James Beech her philosophy for working with family businesses, the secrets to effective management and what Italy must do to reach sustainable economic growth
It takes a special business X-factor to not only survive but also thrive as the leader of a multi-billion dollar company, juggling the demands of the family of owners and of the shareholders in an era of global uncertainty.
It is especially rare as a woman in Italy, where only 7% of listed companies have female chief executives.
This is despite the likely increase in profitability of 6.5 to 7.6% if women chief executives were supported by a gender-diverse board, according to the 2014 Italian study Gender Interactions Within the Family Firm, which examined Italian family businesses with revenues of more than €50 million ($56 million).
Not that gender plays a part in the business dealings of Monica Mondardini, the astute and straight-talking chief executive of CIR Group, who serves on multiple boards and has been awarded some of the highest honours in Spain and France.
Mondardini has earned a reputation for “determination, charisma and strong professional skills”, according to a leading Italian family business academic.
However, “I am not sure that strengths or weaknesses depend on gender, in my opinion they depend on individual inclinations,” Mondardini declares.
“I don’t think there is a magic formula (for enabling more women to become chief executives of Italian companies). However, in my opinion things are improving: for example, the gender quotas for boards have been quite useful.
“But the most important message I can give is that during my career I have never experienced any discrimination due to my gender and so I hope that my positive experience may become the norm in the reasonably near future.”
Since May 2013, the 56-year-old has been the non-family manager of the De Benedettis’ $2.8 billion holding company CIR Group. The appointment continued her upward trajectory over her 31-year career yet she only accepted the role of chief executive of the subsidiary Espresso in 2009 when the De Benedettis assured her they were all on the same page.
“I was interested in the company for its business and leading position in the market and I also thought that my experience in ‘change management’ could be useful to Espresso in facing the major challenges affecting the whole of the print media industry,” she says.
“What matters for me is to agree a common vision with shareholders concerning governance, strategy, and the main guidelines for managing the business. Based upon the conversations I had with both Carlo and Rodolfo De Benedetti, I was convinced that there could be a shared view on how to address the challenges the industry was facing.”
CIR group celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2016 and has expanded across a diverse portfolio, in media with Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, in automotive components with Sogefi, and in healthcare with KOS.
Mondardini proudly says Espresso is one of the most important media companies in Italy and the only newspaper publisher that has always posted a positive net result, despite the crisis in the sector.
She hails Sogefi as one of the largest manufacturers of filters, suspension components and engine systems worldwide.
Milan-headquartered KOS, founded by CIR less than 15 years ago, is already the fourth largest private healthcare company in Italy in terms of revenue, she says.
“Yes, these sectors are different from each other, but the key ingredients for effective management are the same everywhere: commitment, passion, vision, method, and closeness to people, especially in the working relations with the chief executives and management teams of our group companies.”
Asked what emerging trends she predicts CIR will have to deal with in the coming years and her answer is unequivocal—the media is the most challenging sector in which the group operates.
The transition from print media to online is “crippling” the news sector’s traditional business model.
“We at the CIR Group are strongly committed to supporting Espresso in order to strengthen its position as one of the most important players in the Italian media sector,” she states.
“In this sense I would highlight the significant restructuring we have carried out in recent years in order to reduce costs and tackle the challenges of a changing business model, the development of digital news in which we are leaders in Italy and the ongoing project of aggregation between Espresso and Itedi, the media group controlled by FCA, publisher of two important Italian newspapers.
“With reference to the other two sectors of the CIR Group, automotive and healthcare, their outlook is fundamentally positive.”
The Mondardini’s route to business titan began when, as an A-grade student, she followed her passion for mathematics and economics into studying Statistical and Economic Sciences at the University of Bologna. She launched her career at Italian publisher Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri in 1985.
Before joining CIR she spent more than 20 years outside her native Italy, in Spain and France, working mainly for two groups: Hachette (Lagardère Group) and Generali.
An international development programme took Mondardini to Spain in 1989 and she joined French publisher Hachette a year later as head of the Spanish branch of Hachette Livre. She moved to Paris in 1993 to take up the role of director of the international division and become a member of the executive committee.
“During that period, I oversaw the restructuring of the group’s international presence, mainly in Spain and Latin America, as well as overhauling its encyclopedia and reference books business,” she explains.
In 1998 she joined the Generali Group as chief executive of Europ Assistance and just three years later was appointed chief executive of Generali Spain, which became one of the most profitable markets for the Generali Group, after she implemented a turnaround plan.
Founder Carlo De Benedetti resigned as chairman of CIR Group in 2009 and triggered the succession process in the holding company. That same year Mondardini returned to Italy to take the position of chief executive of Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso and steered the major media conglomerate through a rapidly changing market over eight years.
The parent group of Espresso is CIR Group and Mondardini’s skill and talent did not go unnoticed. In March 2013, De Benedetti ceded control of CIR to his sons Rodolfo, Marco, and Edoardo, and Mondardini was appointed chief executive of the entire group.
“The role of the chief executive is to manage a company in the most appropriate and successful way,” she notes.
“This has to be the primary commitment, regardless of whether the company is a family business or not.
“In my view, the formula for a good relationship between family and non-family members is simple: clarity of roles and responsibilities, mutual confidence and respect, and full sharing of strategies.”
CIR Chairman Rodolfo De Benedetti says the family is “blessed” to have Monica Mondardini in their group.
He notes her appointment as the chief executive of Espresso eight years ago may not have been an obvious choice because she had worked abroad and did not come from the Italian media sector.
However, “she had already done such a fantastic job at Espresso that in 2012 I asked her to become chief executive of the entire group too,” De Benedetti says.
“She is doing very well in CIR and my brothers and I fully support her. I have enormous respect for her and we have a great relationship.”
As if CIR chief executive was not responsibility enough, Mondardini maintains her role at Espresso, holds the role of chairwoman of Sogefi, and serves as a board member of KOS.
Mondardini is also an independent board member of three significant listed companies: Crédit Agricole, Atlantia and Trevi Finanziaria Industriale. Within the Atlantia group, whose largest shareholder is the holding company of the Benetton family, she is also chairwoman of Aeroporti di Roma.
Alfredo De Massis is Professor of Entrepreneurship & Family Business at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (Italy) and Lancaster University Management School (UK). De Massis says Mondardini has “a high reputation” as professional manager in the finance and media industries.
“Overall, I think she is well known for her determination, charisma, and strong professional skills that are quite important in those family businesses who have ‘crossed the chasm’ and moved from the early stage to more professional management,” he says.
“Growth imperative, globalisation, and sustainable value creation are key drivers of family business transformations that may require hiring a chief executive not belonging to the shareholding family, like in the case of Ms Mondardini and CIR Group.”
De Massis says Mondardini has been doing “a great job” and adds, “As a female leader in a country that has traditionally been characterised by patriarchy, although things have recently started to change, she has been able to establish a strong reputation with multiple stakeholders leading a big group like CIR across continued growth and development in a difficult and turbulent phase of economy.”
De Massis notes in Italy, the percentage of female chief executives in Italian family firms is quite low for a number of historical and cultural reasons.
“Unfortunately female leaders have to face many issues in order to take over the lead of the family business,” he continues.
“The most critical issues for female leaders refer to the difficulty of gaining recognition of their authority by their firm’s stakeholders and of gaining a sufficient level of legitimacy both internally and externally to the family business. This is unfortunate if we consider that existing research on the topic indicates female leadership is likely to be characterised by many positive aspects. So I think that we, as a country, should do more to increase the presence of women in top leadership positions in family firms and to remove the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, which is an unacknowledged barrier to career advancement, especially affecting women.
“Based on my experience in interacting with women involved in top managerial/leadership positions in family businesses in Italy and abroad, I can tell you that women working in a family business often feel invisible in the eyes of the other members of the family and of the firm. That’s an issue, and we should do something to address it.”
Mondardini’s philosophy is simple but proven effective: “Non-family executives have to do their jobs in the best interest of the company,” she says.
“In this way they also act in the best interest of all the shareholders, including the family.”
Mondardini has been recognised for her bridge-building business acumen in both Spain and France. In 2006 she was presented with the Targa all’Italianità from the Comites di Madrid, which is reserved for Italian residents in Spain who have brought prestige to their own country.
In 2014 she was honoured by the French Embassy in Rome and the French Chamber of Commerce as the economic figure of the year in the relationship between the two countries.
Mondardini says she also feels “very honoured” to receive the Top Non-Family Director Award from her international peers at the European Families in Business Awards, hosted by CampdenFB.
She sees the award as “important international recognition for the whole CIR Group too in what is a special year for our company.”
The award sits on the shelf behind her desk in her office in Milan.
Mondardini received the title of Chevalier dans l’ordre de la Légion d’Honneur from France, “a very prestigious recognition,” she recalls.
“It was also very emotional because of the strong personal ties I have with France. I am grateful to the country as it has played an important role in my personal and professional development.”
Asked how Italian and French business practices compare, Mondardini considers that business practices reflect the different models of entrepreneurship and dimensions of companies.
“The typical Italian company is medium-sized and unlisted, while France has more big multinational corporations, so French management tends to be more structured.”
It is that characteristic no-nonsense approach which Italian politics could benefit from. While Mondardini rules out any interest in taking charge in politics, perhaps Italian politicians would do well to seek her counsel.
“For 20 years the Italian economy has been much weaker than those of the other major European countries,” she says.
“I think that, in order to recover competitiveness, the country needs reforms, from education to the administration of justice, from public administration management to the tax system.
“Furthermore, reforms should be radical in order to be effective; it is not easy, as some of them, which are unavoidable, could prove unpopular.”
Given the average tenure for an S&P 500 chief executive is 7.4 years, is she thinking about her own next challenge?
“Chief executive succession planning is a responsibility of both the board and the shareholders,” she replies.
“Having said that, I have been chief executive of CIR for just over three years now and I must say that both the group and I have long-term objectives.”
Looking back, “satisfaction” is the word she uses to describe her career to date. She insists she has no regrets.
“My personal suggestion to young people who are interested in a managerial career is to look for international experience. If they have the chance, it could be an unparalleled opportunity to grow, both from a professional and a personal standpoint,” Monica Mondardini concludes.
“Another suggestion is to have a humble approach to work and to respect other people’s experience.”