In all candidness, I shouldn’t have been in Solomeo. I don’t write for a big fashion magazine. I have no credibility in Brunello Cucinelli's world. But after a friend heard me wax eloquent about well-made cashmere sweaters for nearly an hour, he suggested that I should perhaps meet this guy in Italy. An email introduction led to an open invitation to come visit his hamlet whenever I was in Italy. Last April, I found myself in Perugia for the Journalism Festival and chanced on a visit. Brunello’s response? Come right over.
The self-made billionaire greeted me at the door as if I was his long-lost friend. I felt as if I had known him all of my life, just hadn’t met him. I had bought two of his sweaters almost seven years ago, when I had lost a lot of weight (which I have since regained), but his clothes aren't really part of my wardrobe. And yet I have admired them, as well as his stores and his ethics.
For example, he gives 20 percent of his company's profits to his charitable foundation in the name of “human dignity” and pays his workers wages that are 20 percent higher than the industry standard, mostly because it allows his company to encourage and continue the Italian craftsman traditions. Cucinelli also pays for an artisan’s school in Solemeo: Young people are free to work either at his company or for another Italian company. The on-campus cafe is way more beautiful than Google Cafe or Facebook’s facilities. And the pasta is really heavenly.
The company, which trades on the Milan Stock Exchange, is doing well: about 356 million euros in revenues in 2014. Brunello is part businessman, part philosopher and part monk. He is not Jeff Bezos or Larry Page. He certainly isn’t chief executive of an oil company. He is the anti-LVMH, and that is what makes him interesting.
We were supposed to meet for 30 minutes but ended up spending a few hours talking about everything from Marcus Aurelius to Barack Obama to Steve Jobs to his father, a farmer. Here is a snapshot of our rambling two-hour conversation, facilitated by an Italian translator. There are so many lessons here for founders, especially the importance of giving back.