We had the chance to sit down with Lorenzo Gornelli, commercial manager of the worker cooperative Ceramiche Noi, who told us a story of luck, courage, and determination.
Ceramiche Noi is a worker cooperative born in 2019 from the ashes of a company with 50 years of experience in ceramic production. A family tradition started in Città di Castello, in the Province of Perugia, in the Umbrian region.
The concerns about the company’s future began about 10 years ago, when a partner, who knew little about ceramics, took over the company, deciding later on, to relocate production to Armenia and to close the factory in Italy. To say the least, none of the employees, such as the production manager, the administration department, or the sales department, liked the idea.
Which is why, assured by the quality of their product, ceramic for tableware, more resistant than normal ceramic, and above all, backed by a loyal clientele in Canada and the United States, the workers decided to buy out the company, in the form of a cooperative.
The beginning was not easy. Not all the employees agreed, the path to be taken was uncertain and the investments were significant. Following meetings, with the help of the union, and the federation of worker cooperatives, Legacoop Produzione e Servizi Umbria, 11 workers founded the worker cooperative Ceramiche Noi in August 2019. Where the "Noi" (“We”) represents the same workers who wanted to resist.
"The worker buyout is a cultural change, which is not easy to coordinate, but is at the basis of the transformation of the company into a cooperative", says Matteo Ragnacci, President of Legacoop Produzione e Servizi Umbria.
Two and a half years later, the cooperative has grown from 11 worker-members to a staff of 26 workers, 10 of whom are women and many new young recruits.
The internal management has not changed much from before. There is a President, an elected Vice- President, and a board of directors.
The clientele is managed by the President and the sales manager, who report to the three department heads, deciding together how best to prepare the required work. The members meet monthly to discuss what to do, possible improvements, and so on.
Legacoop Produzione e Servizi Umbria became a partner of the cooperative at the time of the acquisition, helping to increase the capital and appointing an external administrator.
While the structure is almost the same, the way of living it is different. The workers and owners of the cooperative, at all levels of production, have a say in business decisions. This has contributed to creating a climate of listening, which is more proactive and in which everyone's responsibility carries greater weight.
"A cooperative is like a family, for better or for worse", says Lorenzo.
"Everyone is responsible for the running of the cooperative, which they feel is theirs, and as such they want it to work. If someone has something to say, they say it. There is more than just work, conviviality, and sharing of good moments, like a drink after work, is also part of being a cooperative." he continues.
This climate is also reflected among the new employees, young workers, who, according to Lorenzo, immediately feel included when joining the company.
In 2020, when the pandemic hit, the cooperative had to face an important challenge. There was little liquidity, since most of their money was spent on buying back all the machinery from the previous company. Additionally they had also invested in advanced 4.0 technology which allowed all machinery to be controlled from a central computer and one remotely.
"A bit of luck and our tenacity, together with help from Legacoop Produzione e Servizi Umbria, helped save the cooperative from a difficult time," admits Lorenzo.
They were able to overcome the critical period, mainly thanks to the sales of a big American customer, who had already standardized e-commerce for more than a decade, and above all a medium-high level clientele, who were confined to their homes during the lockdown, and started to renovate their interiors, and to buy furniture, plates, and trays.
At the same time, the international market took a different route during the pandemic. For example, in China, a place where ceramics are affordable and of lower cost and quality, all of the sudden geared its production to its domestic market, significantly raising the cost of shipping abroad. Customers then turned to alternative products, resulting in more premium, local products with affordable shipping costs, such as Ceramiche Noi's Italian ceramics.
The move to a working cooperative was a choice much appreciated by the old customers who did not want to lose a quality product and certainly contributed to attracting new interest. The new customers are fascinated by the history of Ceramiche Noi and contribute even more willingly to support the company.
"Ceramiche Noi is not just an economic/financial algorithm, but an example of good cooperation linked to territorial needs through a common response", says Matteo Ragnacci.
The medium-high quality products of the cooperative are very popular internationally in Canada, America, Russia, France, and the Arabic market. Ceramiche Noi was also invited to the Dubai 2021 EXPO to represent the table for the Italian restaurant in the EXPO and their creations were chosen to award both artists and freelance producers who have distinguished themselves for their commitment and work in the socio-humanitarian field, during the United Nations evening at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
There has also been a lot of appreciation at the local level, where Ceramiche Noi has found support from the municipal administration and the inhabitants of Città di Castello. When a direct point of sale was opened last year, many people went to buy to show their support for the cause.
"The fundamental aspect of the worker buyout is precisely this: work and productivity remain in the territory, thus making it possible not to lose know-how and skills acquired over years. It is even more important in crisis times saving jobs and production and redistributing the benefits to local communities” confirms Matteo Ragnacci.
Ceramiche Noi has managed to maintain the quality of production on site, increasing its membership, and developing new and qualified employment. All of this has been achieved by strengthening commercial relations and innovation, through a careful positioning strategy both in Italy and abroad, and by making an essential contribution to the quality of life, both economic and social, of the community in which it operates.
We wish Ceramiche Noi well and hope that their story will travel across the ocean and inspire workers all over the world! Now let's buy some great ceramics!
Update: Since we wrote this article, Cermaiche Noi started investing in transitioning into a greener production. A sustainable approach is an opportunity to fight the energy crisis and increase the competitiveness of the enterprise while being more respectful of the planet. Watch the video in which Lorenzo Giornelli explains the measures taken in this regard.