Mario Pavesi and his intuitions

Mario Pavesi and his intuitions

Giancarlo Gonizzi – Lamberto Prati


«Reading tomorrow’s newspaper a day ahead»

It is often said that “history” is made by men. It is true. But it is also made by places. Novara is a crossroads: though it is located in the Piedmont region it is the city that is the least dependant on the regional capital and that shows less regional characteristics. Its center of reference is indeed Milan, only 40 minutes away on train.
Novara is also one among the largest Italian provinces. From Monte Rosa to the Ticino river, from Switzerland to the Po river, from the rice bogs to Lake Maggiore, the Valsesia and the tunnel of Mount Sempione, it is all a sequence of very different landscapes. Italy owes a lot to Novara. As early as in the mid 1800s, in these places some of the most bloody and decisive battles for the unification of Italy took place.
It is a land of reserved yet generous people, and the Resistance as well it has been lived here in perhaps a more dramatic way than in other places. Perhaps it is because of the water, delight and torment of Novara. This is very abundant on the surface, and therefore the land is suitable for rice cultivation, but it is not drinkable water, unless it comes from wells dug at very low depth.
In the years after World War II the rice bogs were at the center of attention again. Workers came from all parts of northern Italy and sometimes even further away. There were trains from Emilia as well, filled with women, each holding a suitcase with their best dress and some salami inside.

Mario Pavesi from Cilavegna

Mario Pavesi was born in 1909 in Cilavegna, a small town in the province of Pavia only 20 kilometers away from Novara. Mario’s father owned a woodworking shop, but he was also an entrepreneur together with his brother: they opened a bread bakery. Here Mario learned the first basis of what later some of his collaborators called, with no negative meanings, the mentality of a “bread baker” and an interest towards the world of practical production. Nonetheless his true vocation was in sales, and this could not be expressed in his work with his uncle and his father. Therefore he decided to find his road by himself: first as a salesman, and then as a small wholesaler of baked goods, especially hard candy. He began selling in Novara where he moved in 1934 together with his siblings Piero and Ambrogina. He started visiting his clients on a classic bicycle with two baskets, in front and back, and later with an old broken red wagon car. However, Mario realized that to reach his objectives, the simple sale of products was not enough; then, recuperating his cultural knowledge of baking, he decided to get involved personally in the production of the product he would sell. In 1937 he hired three workers and opened an oven, at first in Via dei Caccia, and later in Via Monte Ariolo, where he produced the typical cookies of Novara.  In 1940, the war broke out and caused a number of problems for Mario Pavesi and the small organization that he had just created, mainly due to the rationing of raw material; he was able to face the difficulties with the typical ability of a world class entrepreneurs, by becoming a supplier for military bases, hospital and civilian structures in a difficult balance with the military and political forces that existed at the time. As early as back in those years, his personality as a generous man emerged. Through the Dominioni Institute that dealt with charitable assistance to young people he was able to have several hundred kilograms of products delivered to the partisans hiding out in the mountains. He was a man that did not let the events easily defeat him. Even during the war his sense of curiosity, his interest towards the behavior of people remained unaltered. Some of his observations comforted him on the value of the road he had taken: he was impressed by the quantity of sweets that the American soldiers consumed. In the meantime, on February 28 1943, his marriage with Mariuccia Lodigiani marked a fundamental step in his life, and not just his private one. His wife practically became the administrator of the company for a long period of time, thanks to her Diploma of Accountant but also to her well balanced character. Mrs. Pavesi is still living and is very active on a professional level, so much that her son Pier Luigi defines her “our tax accountant”. Many employees of the time remember her as a person with the ability to work with people easily. Endowed with a natural ability to deal with people, she was able to separate herself from the role of owner of the company. Her co-workers of those times remember that some times she forgot that she was Mrs. Pavesi, “she worked like us, made photocopies and collated papers, she made this like we did it; it was nice because she made this work become even more important: she knew the value of work”.
This culture of dedication to work was the lever that pushed the activity of Mario Pavesi as well. Pier Luigi, their son, remembers him “for the moral quality and the great severity towards himself and others; he lived in an austere dimension, and did not go out of the lines even jokingly; one could not use vulgar words in his presence, and even though we did not use the formal “Thou” among us, it was almost so”. In 1945 when the production activities moved to the factory in Largo Leonardi, the real industrial production began. Mario Pavesi always took care of everything. He continued his activity of the sales department. This time, it was him who taught his collaborator how to sell. It is said that sometimes he did this in a spectacular way, when trying to prove that the quality of Pavesini was indestructible he took a pack, placed a wooden frame under the packaging and banged it repeatedly on a table. Of course the Pavesini were intact.

The birth of Pavesini

It was in the factory of Largo Leopardi that the Pavesini were given their final shape. With respect to the original cookies made by nuns in the Napoleonic era which had become the symbol of the city in the figure of the “Little Cookie King of Mardì Gras”, it was smaller and with a lower content of water to allow for packaging and better storage. The packaging started to become important as well, and not just to solve technical problems. The eye also wants its part, it was said. At that time image, communication and advertising were becoming issues. Aldo Beldi, a young advertising designer, worked on the design of the very first packaging. From this moment on the true entrepreneurial thinking of Mario Pavesi started to take shape and on this the future of his company in the coming years would be based. The necessity to innovate and therefore to differentiate his own products from those of the competition was a recurring thought for Mario Pavesi. To whoever asked him the secret of the success he used to answer: “There is no secret. It is enough to work and to do things fast, otherwise you risk that someone else will do them before you”.
Another pillar of his philosophy and an aspect of modernity was the importance he attributed on one hand to sales, intended as a production line that began from the company’s sales department and its promotional efforts, and on the other hand the importance he attributed to the advertising commercials of which he was a pioneer. In a wider sense, he was a precursor of times in developing a modern concept of quality, giving great importance to the quality control of products and production process and asking the collaboration of important nutritionists and physiology experts for the fine tuning of the products. Today we would say that he tried to position the products – and in part he was successful – and especially Pavesini, in the health and diet food sector. His entrepreneurial activity continued in a frenetic way. Due to his great gift of observation and to a few trips abroad, he had the intuition that the products, when sold in the appropriate way, can also be of service to people. For example, why not rationalize what in practicality already happened along the Milan-Turin highway, where truck drivers stopped at night to buy cookies and drink coffee? The first Autogrill was born. The circle was completed and closed: production, sales, selling point, service to the consumer. Mario Pavesi always put the full amount of his generous spirit in this: he continuously visited the rest areas to see the progress of operations and monitor the consuming habits of the customers. And so his myth grew. His night visits were highly feared by the employees, as he showed up when he could not sleep and looked behind doors to see that all was clean, and that all was in order. Demanding with himself and others, he gave great importance to hygiene and cleanliness that he considered almost as an “ethical” base for the functioning and a thermometer of efficiency and of working conscientiously. This clarity of ideas found an ethical correspondence at the level of his relationship with his collaborators. He demanded great loyalty and did not like obsequious people, could not stand people who were shrewd or “found scapegoats”, and preferred people who were able to take their own responsibilities even when they made a mistake. “Everyone” he said “must always express themselves at the highest level one’s capabilities”.

Everyone goes to Corso Vercelli

The Greek classics would have defined him as a new Ulysses, a “man of multiform ingenious”. In 1954 the new plant of Corso Vercelli, still functioning today, was inaugurated. This was the headquarters in which the entrepreneur reached his full maturity. Developing the intuitions and the large number of indications he gathered during his journeys to the United States and to Great Britain, he conceived the idea to start  producing crackers. Mario Pavesi confirmed one of his strongest characteristics in this instance as well: quickness in understanding situations and fast pace in materializing projects, without hesitation. “To arrive before others” was his motto. All this was done with an impulsive, decisive and enthusiastic spirit. It was all a flourishing of initiatives.
In 1950 a hot air ballon on the Milan-Turin highway marked the presence of the first Pavesi Autogrill and the first press and radio campaign was launched. When Motta also began to build rest areas the competition was unleashed. Pavesi called famous chefs to study recipes for the dishes that were served in the Autogrill restaurants. Inside the area of Corso Vecelli an “industrial size” laundry was created in which all the Autogrill restaurant towels and personnel uniforms were washed (the change was done twice a week for workers and employees uniforms). In 1960 Pavesi was able to install in the train stations of Milan and Rome two advertising neon signs twelve meters long to advertise the products. It was the era of “It is always time for Pavesini” and of “Pavesini, the hour signal of energy”. Then the legendary and sweet Topo Gigio took his turn as testimonial for Pavesi. In the meantime international recognition started to come: in 1955 he was nominated Knight of Work. He also made some experiments. After a trip to the U.S.A. he tried to produce cornflakes but then he abandoned the project.

To think about the others

The generosity of Mario Pavesi was proverbial. In spite of his success he did not forget the “others”, people who were in need. In 1948 he took to heart the realization of the “House of the Divine Redeemer”, an institute that helps former inmates to go back to work in society. He personally financed the publication of a booklet that supported and divulged the initiative. He was able to gather the attention of other entrepreneurs of the Novara area around this project and in 1949 the construction of the building began, and in 1955 this was widened. During this period he met Oscar Luigi Scalfaro who was then a representative of government and Ugo Poletti, the Vicar of the Diocese of Novara, who both encouraged him often in his initiatives. In 1963 he was among the main benefactors who made possible the building of the “House of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary” that was a point of reference for young women involved in difficult situations. He also donated the building of the nursing home to Cilavegna, his hometown. He was a man with great religious values. He often traveled to Lourdes with his wife, and never forgot to donate cookies to supply the buses leaving for that pilgrimage to France.

The beginning of  delegation

Business by now had reached noteworthy dimensions; the production lines were very powerful and were capable of making 6000 kilograms of cookies per hour; it was necessary to be surrounded by able and trustworthy men. They say of him that: “He knew how to find the right men and place them in the right place”. They also said of him: “He was severe but also knew how to be nice to others”. Thus, collaborators in all the key area arrived: experts in technologies, sales, purchases, administration and finance. Some people were recruited with tested and true systems. “When he hired someone he wanted it to be someone of proven honesty”.  Or he hired someone whose grandfather had been his faithful gardener, so he could appreciate his human qualities and dedication to work. Or he hired a man that had found his bag containing money and documents and brought it back to him. Delegating did not forbid him from being constantly present at the factory and in the offices, to hand down his professional “values” and his sense of order, cleanliness, and efficiency.
Who knows if this man, who spoke dialect to the workers, who only finished elementary school in order to obtain the license for a shop, who was able to synthesize with a small agenda all of the essential activities of his company, realized that his actions influenced the production methods of many other companies and the way to consume food of a large part of Italian society: as his son Pier Luigi says, who knows if he could “read tomorrow’s newspaper a day ahead”.

The evolution of the company

The size of Pavesi was by now that of a large industry. The management style had to evolve from the “family” model towards organizational structures of advanced industrial type. In 1969 the organizational structure reached the moment of maximum expansion. The plant had 1800 employees. The Pavesi and PAI branches, a total of 80, were present in capillary way all over the Italian territory. The branches were not only distribution centers but also complete small versions of the company that included the distribution departments as well as commercial sales. Each branch had an exclusive territorial competence and was run by both administrative and sales personnel. At the organizational level Pavesi was innovative. For the first time in Italy the attempt was made to switch from company dependent transportation to small independent transportation companies. This model would soon extend in a few years to many other Italian companies. But the “touch” of Mario Pavesi was always there. The employees of the branches were hired locally to allow the creation of a more familiar relationship between clients and company. Naturally, it was full of “Mrs. Smiths”, small neighborhood stores that often needed not only good products but also friendly advice. The Pavesi style soon adapted to this reality. The over 300 salesmen conquered the “Mrs. Smiths” of all Italy, demonstrating, as always, that the quality of Pavesini was indestructible.

The life of the factory also became different. Before, all of the workers knew each other, now at the most this was true for same shift workers. The “Hot Autumn” began (note: a historical period characterized by union strikes for workers’ rights in Italy): the picketing and union fights began, and in 1968 there were the first strikes. Sometimes, at the beginning, Mario Pavesi, with his charisma, was able to convince the workers on strike to go back to the factory and resume production. But this became more and more difficult for him. The image that many workers had of him changed. Mario Pavesi was saddened by this, to go “from benefactor to miser”.  For sure the complexity of the company did not allow him anymore to have a direct contact with the personnel, but forced him against his desires to delegate it. To an old school entrepreneur like him, the concept of delegating was difficult as he was by nature and also by necessity used to holding all power in his hands. In any case, there was no solution to the on and off striking of the Autogrill personnel. “A busload of tourists arrives: 10 minutes of strike. The bus leaves, and they (euphemistically) start working again”.

It is time for Ringo cookies

In spite of the difficulties that began around the end of the 1970s, the roots of the company were solid. Mario Pavesi always had in mind the concept of innovation. The password was “to differentiate his products from those of his competitors”. There was a continual incitement of his collaborators to develop something different. The quality controls towards suppliers and on the production lines became more intense. Mario Pavesi always thought of his Pavesini as a diet product. The recipe was perfected also with the suggestions of famous pediatricians like Professors Ivo Nasso and Luca Auricchio. In the end, he was successful in his intent of having Pavesini registered as a diet product “with no added fat”. He moved in this direction also in the world of crackers. He asked the assistance of a well known physiology professor, Rodolfo Margaria, to make a cracker with no salt. On the front of Autogrill things evolved. Once it was understood that Autogrill was the precursor of fast-food, the remodeling of the various rest areas began. For Christmas time, a gigantic spruce tree as tall as a three story house was put up at the Novara Autogrill. All lit up, it could be seen even from the center of town. In another Autogrill, a trough with a gigantic egg was installed. Mario Pavesi certainly had in mind what he had seen in America. In 1967 another product was born: it was time for Ringo. But it still was also the time of Pavesini. Pioneer in all fields, the first cookie to be packaged, the first to be sold in a family size pack, the first – in 1968 – to be sold in portioned size as a snack. From that time on and for many years, how many Pavesini were carried in the school bags of Italian schoolchildren! The result of these intuitions was 6000 kilograms per hour of Pavesini. But the mind of Mario Pavesi was not just on the product. The promotional actions and advertising campaigns were now fundamental levers. To be able to connect them and optimize them was the recipe for success. The prize contest “Raschia Quattro” (scratch four) of 1974 was extremely popular and allowed Pavesi to rise back to maximum sales levels of 5.000.000 kilograms that were reached five years earlier.

In the private 

It is not easy to distinguish that which for Mario Pavesi was “private” from that which he considered work related. All was mixed. How could his bending down to clean a floor when he was not satisfied of its brightness be interpreted otherwise? Or the night inspection visits to the Autogrill. In the “social” world as well, when he paid the tuition for kindergarten for his employees children. One of the few concessions that he made to himself was his passion for antiques. But this could be seen in the furnishing of his office. Perhaps this gave him a sense of safety and control. A continual tension towards the activity of the company moved him. He always had great respect for his collaborators, especially for factory workers, who surely were closer to the world of his origins. A man of deep feelings, but also with many sharp corners, his closest collaborators remember him well: when the telephone rang, and they knew it was Mario Pavesi because he had his ring personalized, they had to immediately run. The private dimension of this great entrepreneur was marked by illness through the last ten years of his life: in 1960 he had the first symptoms of it, and in 1969 he had a tumor. In 1974 the tumor came back, and in 1975 he showed the symptoms of heart problems. In 1987 he suffered a stroke. His destiny was marked by this. In front of this dramatic situation and of the uncertain future, Mario Pavesi decided he would not leave the lead of the company to his children, as they were still too young.  He let them study, prepared them for it, but in 1972 he sold the company to Montedison. The trauma that he felt was mitigated by the possibility to remain until 1974 at first as company President and then as consultant.

Never give up

In spite of the difficulties and the bitterness of this, Mario Pavesi’s character was very strong. He kept busy. He widened his horizons. He traveled to China with his son Pier Luigi, where rhubarb elixir was produced. In 1980 he passed his new activity definitely to his children. He took periods of vacation in his Arenzano and Macugnaga homes, but in the last years of his life, in 1988, when he visited the Pavesi factory (in Milan, formerly Alivar), and spoke to former collaborators, he stated: “If I was ten years younger I would start all over again”.

Passing the baton

Mario Pavesi died in February of 1990, at age 81, after a year of illness. He was buried in Cilavegna where he was born, and where he and his family always returned at Christmas and Easter time, to visit with the Mayor. Mario Pavesi died after seing from the outside a dark period for the history of his company. But in a short time, the moment of reprise arrived: the best gift of recognition to the sacrifice and work of man, and of the value of the basis that he built. The baton would soon be passed.



Chronological Index Mario Pavesi (1909-1990)


Mario Pavesi was born in Cilavegna, in the province of Pavia, where he starter to work very early in his father’s bakery and then later as a wholesaler of sweet goods.


Together with his siblings Piero and Ambrogina he moved to Novara, where very soon he developed his entrepreneurial talent.


With the help of three workers, he opened a bakery in Novara, where he produced “Biscottini (little cookies) of Novara”.


With the increase of work, the bakery’s workforce grew to ten workers.


He opened a factory of almost 3.000 square meters that gave work to nineteen operators.


He married Mariuccia Lodigiani who was for a long time, in all practical aspects, the company’s administrator.


The outbreak of World War II did not slow down the activity of the company: Pavesi supplied with his products military headquarters, hospitals and civilian structures and prepared for the post war economic reprise by designing newer and more modern methods of processing, building machinery and patenting it. From the “Biscottini (little cookies) of Novara” he created “Pavesini”. A journey to the United States gave him the idea to produce Crackers, Ringo cookies and rest areas along the Italian highways


With the post war reprise of economy and of industrial production, a new factory was opened in Novara, in Largo Leopardi, where new varieties of products where developed for which, in addition to production and sales, Pavesi also took care of the promotion and advertising communication, of which he was one of the precursors in Italy. Among the various initiatives, he distributed metal wire merchandise displays in the sales points, showcasing the entire range of Pavesi products.


Based on a design of his friend and architect Angelo Bianchetti, he built the prototype of Autogrill, next to the Novara exit toll boots on the Milan-Turin highway. Within the span of ten years Italy became populated with “auto grill” rest areas topped with the Pavesi signs, that soon were joined by those of the competitors.


He set up a Pavesi stand at the Fairs of Milan with a puppet show and took part in the Tour of Italy bicycle race with a vehicle that followed the bicycle caravan and at every stop projected cartoons and advertising commercials.


He inaugurated the new factory in Corso Vercelli, still functioning nowadays, with the help and support of experts of technologies, sales, stocking, administration and finance, and the production rose to 6000 kilograms of cookies per hour. The style of management evolved from a “family management” model towards organizational assets of advanced industrial kind.


He called to join him for a meeting about Pavesini at the Savini Hotel of Milan the most important exponents of the artistic and cultural world of Italy: Mario Soldati, Achille Campanile, Erberto Carboni, Orio Vergani, Enrico Emanuelli, Dino Buzzati.


The Pavesi company reached 1800 employees, 80 branches on the entire territory of Italy and over 300 retailers.


The name “Autogrill Pavesi” was created and on the project of architect Angelo Bianchetti, the first auto grill with a structure bridging both sides of the highway on built on the A4 Highway.


Since his children were still too young to take over, Mario Pavesi sold his company to Montedison, and at first he remained as President, then as a consultant of the society until 1974. In the meantime he started other companies, among which the Rabarbaro Zucca.


Together with Motta and Alemagna, the Pavesi Company was merged into SME, a financial society of the State for the food sector. In the same year, from the merging of the highway restaurant branches of Alemagna, Motta and Pavesi, the “Autogrill” brand was born.


Mario Pavesi left the management of Rabarbaro Zucca to his children. The last ten years of the entrepreneur’s life will be marked by illness.


In February, Mario Pavesi died at the age of 81.


The Pavesi Company is privatized and sold to the Barilla group. Today the production of the company is divided into three areas: breakfast cookies, sweets and crackers.