ANTONIO SAVARESE, with his chiselled contours, angular build and granite-grey hair, could have been carved from the south-westerly Italian coastline where he was born. A traditional, family man, running an alcohol business – there aren’t many left of his kind. Savarese and his cousin Giuseppe D’Avino are fourth-generation owners of Strega Alberti – the company that for 156 years has produced the fiendishly yellow herbal liqueur Strega. This is one of the last old family-owned – but globally distributed – drinks brands not to have become part of someone else’s portfolio.
When Savarese speaks of his career battling to keep the brand alive in 40 markets (and succeeding) it is not through sharp-suited hyperbole of percentage gains and new marketing campaigns, but of relationships. “We are not a big company, we are not a very important company but we are considered gentlemen in the way we do business,” he says with pride, sitting in the office built on the proceeds of doing things in the right way.
“To be considered gentlemen of business is important to us. We have family-to-family relationships with our importers that have continued from generation to generation.” His way is manners over money-making, break-bread tradition over dog-eat-dog competition, and he won’t change. To him a handshake is more a contract than an email.
Perhaps that’s because Savarese was not brought up on the mean streets of marketing. Really he is a man of Italian hospitality, running his parents’ hotel on the Sorrento coast for 15 years. His father had built the hotel and when he passed away a 20-year-old Savarese was plunged into managing the operation. In his mid-30s he followed in his father’s footsteps by restoring an old building in Tuscany and opening his own hotel. It was a retreat to a simpler life, but his biggest challenge was yet to come.
In 1996 Savarese was asked to join Strega – the famous old company on his mother’s side. In traditional families in Italy, the reins of business tend to be handed down from father to son. But at Strega there was a break in the chain – along the vertical there were only daughters. So two nephews were asked to start the generational transition, Savarese and his cousin, D’Avino.
The boom for Strega was about a century before they took charge – their job was one of managing markets, keeping the brand visible and buoyant above water.
“When Italians started to emigrate to the US, Latin America – such as Argentina and Brazil – and Australia people bought products such as Strega with them because it was a flag of Italy; they identified with it,” says Savarese. “That set the tone for the brand.” The early family members recognised that a redistribution of Italians opened the way for global distribution of the brand. “People would offer it for Christmas. It became popular in international bars and hotels,” says Savarese. “Really our generation found an open road. In Brazil and Argentina it was so popular they made imitations.”