The creators of well being
He says: “To each of us the Good Lord gives at least one virtue…”
To him, God gave a nose for cookies, and the talent for a difficult kind of industry. He speaks in dialect, does not read books, does not go to the cinema nor to La Scala opera house, does not have hobbies, but in his field he is one of the most relevant men in the world. Many consider him a phenomenon.
Mario Pavesi, a light coat, a yellow bow tie, three thousand employees, two hundred million packages of cookies per year, nine hundred million Lire spent in advertising, technical schools, foreign languages spoken by ear, no pastimes, Corporal of Infantry, son of a woodworker. Age: fifty seven since his birthday on December 29. Three children. He steps in the car with me. He has with him his bag with handles: he never separates from it. We are going from the Novara factory that is at the Madonna del Bosco locality on the road to Vercelli, to the Autogrill on the highway where his name can be seen raising from a distance of four kilometers in ten meters long lettering. Millions of car drivers can see it riding along the highways. There are fifty Autogrills with the name Pavesi on them. Many cost about one billion Lire and are so efficient that the Americans copied their design.
Elevator stairs – the music is coming from the ceilings, mingled with a soft game of lights. We sit at one of the Formica covered tables, with little benches made of green plastic, two carnations on the salt shaker set, a paper napkin, the girls with hair sprayed coiffures wearing white and blue striped shirts and a blue tie with a name printed on that can be seen everywhere: Pavesi.
The name is staring at us from the potato chips trapped in cellophane, from banana flavored cookies, from the boxes of crackers, from ashtrays, and from the self service bags. The highway, dressed in the gray color of winter, flows below. Since it is sunset, one lane is made of red spots and the other, in the opposite direction, of blinding rays of light.
“A tea? Whiskey on the rocks for me”
“Yes, Mr. Mario.”
He places his bag at his side and looks attentively at the clock. He is wearing a salt and pepper suit. The only elegant detail: a completely buttoned up vest. Nice hands, white hair.
“It must be a nice feeling, isn’t it? To see one’s own name written everywhere…do you ever get a sense of shyness about the name?”
“Oh, yes: not just me, but my children as well – I will be honest. In some moments, if we could change our name….”
He says this with witty eyes in the dialect of Novara. He is from Cilavegna, an industrial town of the Pavese area that can be reached much sooner from Novara than from Pavia. A town clouded in fog with hunters hiding behind every shrub. “It seems strange”, he continues, “ but if you are in a public place and a person comes in saying: ‘Oh, Mr. Pavesi, how are you? Com-man-der!’ Then fifty eyes at once turn to see the face of this Commander – is a strange face – and who knows what they are thinking, seeing someone half elephant and half man…” He hates it when people call him Commander.
“Are you a Commander of the Italian Republic?”
“No. Of the Pope”
“Of what Order?”
“Oh, I do not know!”
“But you are Knight of Work, though”
“That is true: but how it is possible to call one ‘Knight of Work’? Can you call him Work-Knight ?” 
His wife jokingly circulated the news that she ordered him one thousand business cards with ‘Commander Pavesi’ written on them. He seriously got worried it could be true.
All of the five hundred employees of the company (each wearing a white coat) are instructed to address him in the dialect of Pavia saying: “Good day Mr. Mario.” Anyone can enter his office.
He enjoys his whiskey. “Do you drink it for your coronary arteries?”
He smiles. “No, just because.”
He is clearly pleased to drink American style sitting on board one of his Autogrills. Who would have ever imagined it, back in Cilavegna, that one day he would see his name written in ten meters long letters through the thick of fog on the highway, even though in his hearth he deamed so? From age twelve to seventeen he worked planing wooden chairs and tables.
“Could you make a table like the one where we are sitting now?”
“Oh, I could make much more! Look, if you came to my house in Cilavegna, in Via Cavour number 14, there is a large frame with sculpted rosettes under the ceiling. It is still there. I made it against my will when I was fourteen. They wanted me to do it, but I did not like it.”
“It is always time for Pavesini! Keep in shape with Pavesini”- a voice as soft as velvet whispers from forty hidden speakers.
The first Autogrill was born seventeen years ago next to the Novara toll booths. At first it was an improvised thing, a little more than a cabin to sell cookies to the people of Turin, creatures of habit. Then came a cement building, colored and welcoming like a Disney fantasy: an arch with a suspended balloon and, under the balloon, a round dance of children, each holding a cookie in the hand. Then, the Pavesi factory had only fifty workers. The architect was Angelo Bianchetti, the same one who later designed the entire chain of Autogrills.
“Do you remember when there was a huge tire at the Greggio exit? It was a painted tire and stood out like a giant over the highway. I do not remember which brand of tires it was, but I know that it was impressive. We got inspiration form that tire for the design of the balloon – we asked the architect one specific thing: ‘Remember I want to catch the attention of drivers’. He was very good – we got it.”
After the Montgolfier balloon in Novara, the Bergamo Autogrill was inaugurated ad then the ones in Linate, Ronco-Scrivia and finally Fiorenzuola, the “mother ship”. Pavesi calls it the “Fiorenzuola bridge”. It is useless to describe it, because everybody has seen the bridges over the highway with their lights, the cookies, the toasts, the girls with striped white and blue shirts. In 1960 Life magazine sent its reporters to photograph the bridge of Fiorenzuola lit up like a ship docked on the highway.
Pavesi was not even informed of this. He saw a published reportage entitled “The European Progress”. He was flattered, and indeed he had the article framed, but still reprimanded the director of the Autogrill. You cannot allow the Americans to photograph a docked ship without asking the Admiral’s permission.
Then special missions came from all over Europe to study the architectural and economical aspects of the idea, until the Americans – five or six years later – built an almost identical bridged rest area in the outskirts of Chicago. Pavesi was happier that if they had come to copy his handmade frame with sculpted rosettes – there is no comparison!
“Who copied it?”
“Ah, here there’s the problem: I am not sure who did it, but it must have been… how many years have gone by!… well I saw them many times and I remember that they have a logo with a stem like a royal crown…But who was it that had the royal crown logo? Goodness! There was Continental, Conoco… I do not remember it. Sure, yes, they did something different, on the base of their needs.
On the other hand, we would have done the same. Europeans have a certain flair. You could never take a well known American product and bring it to Italy: who can assure you of its success? Never. Look at cookies, for example. American cookies are excellent, interesting, well made but maybe because of our palate, or because of all the coconut they put in them – they do not sell here and it is a taste that is far from ours. One needs to consider this with attention, and with infinite care.”
“And how do you do it, then?”
“Oh, I was waiting for this question.”
He lowers his voice and looks around. It is like if he strongly feels that he is revealing a secret. We are in his home, where everything is Paves: he is among trusted friends.
“You see: it’s a matter or nature. Nobody – I think – can entirely take merit for being a genius in life. But to each of us the Good Lord gives a gift. Take the famous singers, from Caruso on: God gave them a voice, why did he not give it to others? Take, who knows, Einstein… now, I do not want to make out of place comparisons, but you can find a gift for everyone…”
He does not say this clearly, but he’s hinting to himself, even in his way full of modesty.
After all his staff – made of serious people with a mature professional preparation in economics from the Bocconi college, and well experienced in the management of a company that became the first among fifty cookie factories in Italy – agrees with him: his sense of intuition must be acknowledged.
Even though he speaks in dialect and maybe he never went to La Scala, he is able to see the threads of the resolution of a problem extremely clearly and to order them into their correct weave, in the field of business: he manages to control situations. He has intuitions, gives dispositions, signs papers. Then he adds: “Perhaps someone else has a hundred times more skills than I do in a field in which I am completely ignorant…and vice-versa”.
The talent of other people enchants him like a puzzle game – you do this, I know how to do that, and together we complement each other – and this seduces him. He spends long time as a habit in front of the windows of a confectioner’s shop of Corso Matteotti in Milan. He likes to be surprised every time by the owner, a lady of great taste who is able to display the confectionery in the windows with “a sense of natural style, a beauty, that is enchanting: truly genial… something that would give you an extreme pleasure to give as a gift!”
As far as cookies are concerned, that strictly concern him and in his words seem to be what our country is yearning for with burning need (such is the rigor of his commitment), his conclusions are: “Believe me: to get the right taste for a cookie – for example, cream, orange, a wafer – the taste of the public is the sole criteria. But who gives life to the cookie, who feels it, I insist, is the person with a particular nature: the peculiar guy with a genial idea that can say: try doing it this way. And the thing works”.
Covered in secrecy
The Pavesi cookies, as we see them everywhere, from television to the supermarket, are backed up by a councils of ministers and a democratic referendum. There exist various types, divided into classes and subcategories. In order for a new cookie to be created – and this is a frequent event – the factory experts reunite at Madonna del Bosco.
They have frowning, serious faces, many of them belong to the Rotary Club. They would make you think of anything but short pastry cookies named Manola. Pavesi presides the meetings. The serious faces that appear around the profile of the long council meeting table are those of the heads of departments: advertising, sales, packaging, product quality, production, production machinery, plant installations. They all look at Mr. Mario’s bow tie. In the wings of the plant millions of cookies pour out of the production tunnels without the operators touching a thing; everyone wears a work coat, the boxes are sealed, the truck who had come in filled with eggs from Holland and Denmark go out loaded with “Sfogliatelle” pastries.
“You must understand that my staff is a work force. These are people born with the company and they are still here today. There has not been a circus of people coming and going, we did not change the people every six months like some do. It is sufficient to just exchange two words between us, and we have understood each other. It’s like between a husband and wife. When your wife is nervous, you understand it immediately, don’t you?…”
A cookie is approved tor experimental production. It is covered by secret. The production director prepares the “embryo phases” of production and soon there comes the day in which he enters (without knocking on the door, as we said) the office of Mr. Mario. He is holding a squared tin box. It is a shiny box and he holds it with care. He closes the doors and places the box in front of Number One. Then he lifts the cover and indicated it with his hand. A moment of silent contemplation follows.
Then Pavesi’s small hand towers in suspension over the box: two delicate fingers take the “embryo phase” cookie and the tasting begins. You can hear the ticking of the clock. Pavesi – his eyes fixed in a void and his eyebrows frowning, tries the cookies. He tries them with his teeth, then studies them with his palate, puts them to test with his nose, pushes his fingers on the dough that is still warm from the oven with the concerned care that one would have for a child.
Then, he remains silent, while one would expect him to speak. He removes some crumbs from his jacket’s collar and from the bow tie and says nothing. This means that the referendum can start. The production director exits and the following day many squared tin boxes start circulating in the various offices. The five hundred employees of Pavesi are asked – in all honesty – to taste the cookies (yes, during office hours, and this is a true spirit of cooperation of this company) and to indicate their doubts on a form and to choose which of the names proposed by the advertising department they prefer for the newborn cookie of the company.
The female employees get engaged in this, as they are also mothers and housewives. What do they write on the forms? Too much salt, pay attention to the smell, not enough vanilla, too much sugar? The consistency is good.
“You see, this is a decisive moment. No single person can ever decide ‘this is nice, this is perfect’. It is clear that even I cannot do so for even one of our cookies. Because even if it is perfect for me, I cannot believe that all the others must renounce to thinking with their own head, can I? That is why before we start production we ask the opinion of everyone. The referendum does not stop with us and the employees. When we reach a certain level of perfection we take the product and come here to the Autogrill to start a survey on maybe one thousand people: we have a free tasting for the cookies, perhaps of two kinds of cookies that are up for ballot, involving the real public of visitors: we ask them to express their thoughts. This way we receive fed back outside the boundaries of our environment, that sometimes can lack objectivity. In the end, we have our confirmation results.”
For this confirmation results, Pavesi personally tries the products known to the wide public two or three times a day to improve them continuously. In truth, this caused him a weight problem. It is a difficult moment for him because of blood sugar levels. He speaks about his blood sugar problems that became accentuated with age, and does not speak of sugar in the sense of product.
But is there something that could ever be an obstacle to him in taking care of the healthy growth of the Pavesini company?
The Pavesino cookie was born in 1948, and is almost twenty years old: “It is reaching the adult age” Mr. Mario explains. If the Pavesino cookie was not so well known he would show me the photo: the Autogrill is filled with its photos of all kinds and sizes. He becomes affectionate like a father when he talks about it. “We have twenty qualities of cookies but Pavesino…he’s the king! Look: from the first day he never lost strength because he is of such nature, of such quality ingredients that no product can be his equal. It is very simple: eggs, flower and sugar. There is absolutely nothing else in it except aromas and yeast. That’s it. And please understand me: the nature of the product is so genuine that we cannot use frozen egg mixtures!” His expression shows a sense of marvel, as if he is saying a huge truth. “You must use fresh eggs in their shells – shells! Because if you do not use fresh eggs in shells the Pavesino cookie does not come out all right.”
He stretches out on the green plastic couch.
He left for the first time for the Unites States in 1952. There seemed to be no way to convince him to do so. It was a friend who convinced him to travel. His name was Enrico Bersighelli, but Pavesi prefers to call him “his president.”
Bersighelli continues to be president of Pavesi, of which Mr. Mario is CEO, even after the company has entered a partnership with Edison to have more economic rebound in its programmatic choices.
“One thing leads to another and that journey created in me such an awakening of ideas, of organizational concepts, and so on, that I felt like reborn.” Since then, traveling has become a habit for Pavesi, and he journeyed there twenty times. He knows all of the cookie industries of the United States. He already knew the British and European companies, not in detail but only for a sense of personal passion. With patience and love he took from each one of them some ideas: perhaps suggestions – it is more correct to say – that gave him the ability to improve and streamline his plant. Nowadays Pavesi is a production industry that can be compared to the size and style of American companies. So many study groups come to visit the plant that Pavesi does not even have the number of white coats to cover the number of visitors.
“Allow me to explain better: we have some levels of technical perfection that the Americans have not reached yet. He travels with a language interpreter, a secretary whose name is Stevens, born in Naples but native English speaker. He personally smiles and looks at people. More than his speech translated, what strikes are his disarming eyes. He never took one photograph in his life, but has a photographic memory for everything – people and factories. Since 1952, when he inaugurated the factory on the road leading to Vercelli and began to connect the rings of the Autogrill chain, the number of his employees rose to three thousand. This number, in an almost automated factory, is a small detail. The parking lot of the Pavesi plant has grown in size twenty times. They all come to the plant by car to make cookies and when they get there Mr. Mario is already in.
He lives in Milan near Viale Maino.
“How could I give you the address? Then a lot of people will call my house: suppliers from back when I was a salesperson ask me. “Why don’t you send us something? We had recognized your talent back then… or total strangers will call and ask for a loan of two million Lire to start their own business…I also received loans, but I asked them to people who knew me well, and who saw me riding my bike from morning to evening working hard… I rode so many miles, my dear…”
He came to Milan so that his three children could study: Pierluigi, who is 23, is attending the third year of Economics in college and is 5’9” tall. Ettore is 18 and is attending the third year of Classic Lyceum at the Treviglio Salesian college; and then there is Elisabetta, who is 10 and attends the fifth year of elementary school. Handsome children who love to study.
Their mother, Mrs. Mariuccia, is of a sweet and welcoming temper. Every week end she brings home in her black Mercedes car her white coat to wash it. Mariuccia Pavesi, the CEO’s wife, works at the company in Novara. She does not have a personal office tailored for her and she is not part of the directional staff. She has a supervisor and thirty colleagues. In short words, she is one of her husband’s employees. She is one of three thousand employees. She gets a paycheck and fifteen days of paid vacation. She marks her work card at the company’s clock and works at the typewriter. In the evening she goes back to Milan with the Work-Knight, saluted by their personal chauffeur holding his hat in his gloved hand.
“But how is she seen in the company?”
Pavesi is amused by this aspect of which he speaks: “Oh, she is nice to everybody. They chat, she knows everything, from the love story of the girl who is engaged, to the marriage plans of another colleague, to the lady who is dating a man. She likes to live this way. It’s her life, and she is used to it.”
They met in an office of the Montecatini company, where a then unknown Pavesi had chanced to go on a small business. Mariuccia is from Borgosesia. They get up together at 6.30 a.m., they do not do physical exercise. They get ready in a hurry.
“Do you eat Pavesini for breakfast?”
“Goodness gracious! For sure! Pavesini…”
Then in an excess of sincerity, as he is a frank person, and an instinctual one he says: “And often I eat also cookies from other companies, to taste them.”
Their apartment is nice. Pavesi has paintings from the Eighteenth century, a period that he loves, like the beautiful confectioner’s window in Corso Matteotti. Among the modern painters, that he does not know, he only has works by Pierangelo Tronconi: colored images of witches and visions. He also collects antique furniture from the Eighteenth century. He touches the furniture with his thumb, like a woodworker. He goes to antique shops with the same attentive eye he has in the American factories he visits. At the Novara Autogrill, the English clock and the decorative dishes hanging on the walls were chosen by him. When we came in, he personally turned the mechanism to wind the clock that answered to the touch with its carillon.
Traveling on the highway between Milan and Novara in the morning, and the opposite stretch in the evening, he does not care if there is sun, fog, moon: he studies documents and reports that he keeps handy in his bag with handles, and writes notes in large handwriting on all of the envelopes and the backsides of papers. In the evening he turns on the light to work while he travels. “You know… it’s comforting to work without the telephone…” His driver, Aldo Cappllini, is a jovial man with a large mustache: he is a prudent driver. Eight years ago, while he was thinking of some addition to the plant, Mr. Mario drove off the road and had an accident, hitting a pole.
“Since then, my wife retired my driver’s license”.
The Pavesi couple eat together at 1 p.m. Sharp in a small apartment located in the building of the original factory, now enclosed in the city of Novara. He is not a gourmand. “My brothers and sisters – we are four siblings – complained a lot about food in winter because of cabbage soup. Actually, it smelled a lot, you know how it is, but I never thought too much of it. But I look back at myself, it is true, and I feel the social responsibility that comes with directing a company. This is my fundamental idea. I feel I am a protagonist of the life of many other people. And I think that whoever does not think about this, acts irresponsibly. Moreover, I dare say that someone like that could not lead an industry- someone who only thought about his own profit. What can money do for such a person, in that a case? Because if he works he does not enjoy money, and if he leads a brilliant socialite life he cannot seriously work…”
“But doesn’t one become like the prisoner of a chain?”
“This is true as well: you are locked into a mechanism but you endure this as a personal mission. After all, believe me: I think that whoever is not used to it feels a sense of discomfort for pomp and mundane life, and feels like a fish out of water – mundane life seems boring to me…”
He does not travel for leisure. He took his first vacation last year in Spain, at Easter time, with his wife and friends. Away! Far from his cookies for a nice vacation traveling by plane.
“I came to the point of becoming a fairy tale to my friends. Between a supermarket and another, outside a store, inside another store, I was restless. The others went to see museums and I visited the shops in Madrid, Seville and the other place near Torre Molinos, what is it called? Help me… Malaga, yes, Malaga!”
“But did you find something in Spain as well?”
“Oh, goodnes! Yes! Those little salami I showed you. It seemed a genial idea to me to store the little salami in fat for six months. I brought a jar home and I had it studied as a model for a packaging to be sold in our Autogrills. It had a wonderful success…”
He liked Noah
He does not care about the way he dresses, does not play card games (“I do not even know how to play the card games they had back in Cilvegna”), he does not read books. The last book he read he found by chance in Macugnaga, where he owns a log cabin. He goes there for fifteen days during the summer when the factory shuts down between July 25 and August 8, and Mrs. Mariuccia takes half a week to bring the sick pilgrims to Lourdes. He does not remember the title of the book. He remembers it is a story about the south, about Sicily. I suggest: “Il Gattopardo (the leopard)”, instead it is “I Malavoglia”. I ask. “Did you like it?” “Not so much”.
I make the observation that “I Malavoglia” were not the kind of folks who would ever buy cookies. It is just a joke, and he laughs. The last movie he saw was “The Bible”. The story of Noah building the Ark moved him to tears for his genial vision and for the courage to start this work…”
“Perhaps you thought of building an Ark over the highway…”
“Well, you need not say this twice, because I had bought a boat to transform it into an Autogrill along a highway in proximity of a lake. But I could not find the lake, and so…”
He goes out two or three evenings in a year at the most. As soon as he is home, he puts on his slippers. If he watches “Carosello” and sees Topo Gigio speaking well of Pavesini he he watches it sitting in a green chair and thinks about the suggestions to give to his advertising department. There is nothing, at Pavesi’s company, that does not bare the mark of his cooperation. He does not own farms nor farmlands as he does not want “to bear crosses on his shoulders”. They tried in every way to convince him to go hunting, and his son hunts bears and elephants. But it is not for him.
“The only time I shot, when I was a soldier, I almost set a forest on fire.”
“Do you ever sing?”
“I have not heard my own voice singing since the time I was a child.”
“Do you know at least one poem to recite when you are happy?”
“No poems. I am happy in a normal way, you know? I have a healthy family, children that are growing nicely…”
“Will you leave the company to them?”
“I will not force them to work with me. They will choose the path they want to walk by themselves. You cannot work in a field without enthusiasm: it must be a true passion. If Pierluigi, the firstborn, as soon as he graduates from college will want to deal with cookies, I will find him a job in another company….I will do this so that my son will not think he is someone important when he is not. When he will earn it (the same is true for his siblings), then he will be someone important. They are nothing at the moment. If they will not conquer a place of importance for themselves they will become good gophers of the company…”
He belongs to the Rotary Club but does not go often to meetings. He did not give a speech when he was admitted into the club.
“I always tried to avoid speeches. I am not good a speaking in public.”
He intends to extend the Autogrill chain since he feels “forced to have many of these because of a management economy”. He has never been to the furthest one in Murge, near Bari. In all the other ones he has been spotted even incognito. Entering into the Novara Autogrill with me, he looked carefully at everything. He noticed that the sandwiches in the window had a slightly broken crust, that the new products were not well lit and that the bar tender did the right thing by asking Mr. Mario to pay the bill for the whiskey. His continual challenge is to keep the prices low: one hundred lire, one hundred twenty at most. The wall of sound is there. You need not break it.
He has every detail in mind. While speaking about the most characteristic accident that can happen in his factory – cookies getting burned – he is able to calculate mentally the amount of damage: “If the light does not work correctly and the emergency alarm does not turn on immediately, one thousand kilos of Pavesini cookies can burn: there are 32 cookies in one hundred grams, 320 in one kilo, 3200 in ten kilos, 32 thousand in one hundred kilos, 320 thousand in ten hundred kilos… That’s it: three hundred twenty thousand cookies have burned…” He is sad, but not for the money damage (he is a generous man) but for the burned Pavesini.
In his right pocket he carries a rosary beads crown from Lourdes. He shows it. It is in a small leather bag with button fastening that clicks loudly. He says that God must have a nice mechanographical set up to keep in mind all of the need of everyone. He had a mechanographical machine already back in 1949.
It is night now.
From October to March there are not many visitors in the Autogrill. It feels like we are talking among toys. A few truck drivers yawn. A thick fog has settled down. In a short while the Mercedes car with Marietta the employee on board will come to pick up the CEO.
“Listen, you asked me some questions and I answered the best I could. For me, life is a matter of habits, and this is all right; it is not like I have moments of inner euphoria. But I tell you frankly: the responsibility that I feel having three thousand people on my shoulders is so huge that I do not take anything lightly – Young lady! Hurry up and take those sandwiches with the broken crust off the display, come on!”
 – Pavesi makes a pun on words to indicate that he does not like to be addressed by a title like Knight of Work. In Italian, Cavaliere del Lavoro, jokingly abbreviated as Cav-Lav by his employees and family, became the short version