Marco Nespolo (b.1973) has been chief executive officer (CEO) of Fedrigoni Group for nearly five years, overseeing its transformation from large, family-owned business to global player, acquiring many other companies at a historically significant moment in the paper and self-adhesives industry, and placing a commitment to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) at the forefront of his strategy for the rapidly expanding Group. During this turbulent time Nespolo and his management team have had the additional challenges of a global pandemic and an energy crisis, yet his commitment to the industry remains steadfast.
After studying at Warwick University in the UK and a business admin degree from Milan’s UCLB (Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi), Nespolo began his career as a financial analyst at Citibank in Milan. In 1998 he joined management consultancy Bain & Company, working in many different sectors and moving to London in 2005 as an operating partner at investment firm Bain Capital. Between 2005 and 2013 he worked at Bain Capital Private Equity in London. After working with several Bain acquisitions around the globe, he became Chief Operating Officer at Cerved, the business information agency, becoming its group CEO in 2016. In late 2018 Nespolo left Cerved to become CEO of Fedrigoni, in which Bain Capital had bought a majority share the year before.
Married, with two school-age children, Nespolo enjoys winter sports and travelling with his family to adventurous, far-flung locations.
John L. Walters: Marco, you once spoke about businesses being complex animals …
Marco Nespolo: Well, my first real exposure to businesses and the complexity of organisations was when I started working as a consultant after university, parachuted into big companies with complex tasks and problems to solve, helping senior leaders. Making things happen requires critical thinking, but also the right communication, the right soft skills and emotional intelligence to bring people with you. It was super fascinating. I was lucky because in such an environment, I had the opportunity to engage with many experienced professionals from different industries and with very different characteristics, in a much tighter time frame.
Why does Fedrigoni put such emphasis on creativity, with ‘elevating creativity’ on every surface?
Our purpose is to provide materials for creative use – not just artistic or design work – whether it’s a wine label or a box or a bag or packaging. But it’s also in creative solutions for other applications, in industry or pharma.
On the Paper side, we are talking to an audience of creative people, and designers and brand managers are the ultimate stakeholders. On the Self-Adhesives side, there are applications that are less about the classical type of creativity, but the twist for us is enabling creative solutions and responding better to our clients’ needs.
Fedrigoni has been expanding at quite a rate, with twelve acquisitions in the past few years. Does this put a particular pressure on you, as CEO?
‘Inorganic’ growth is part of our strategy. In the premium niches we serve, we consolidate smaller players within a bigger group that still has the agility to preserve their specific legacies and heritage. It’s about adding as opposed to standardising.
How do you keep in touch with everyone?
We arrange what we call Fedrigoni Momentum, where I bring together, say, 300 managers from around the globe. I want to see them all in one big room at least once a year to connect and shake hands, spend time together, but also to deep dive on our strategy and get closer to what we want to do, why we do it.
And we get a better understanding on how we can move together in one direction, despite there being more than 5000 of us around the globe.
After I joined Fedrigoni Group it took a year to shape strategy and recruit the management team.
In January 2020, I organised a week-long trip for nearly 35 members of the team, hiking in Morocco, sleeping in tents, sharing ambitions and bonding. Only a few weeks later, we would have been shut in at home!
How did Covid-19 affect you and the company?
Covid was a shock. Getting our people to work from home in two weeks was a challenge. We were buying laptops at the supermarket! We had to get everyone wired and safe at home while keeping the operations up and running. It was a super intense crisis management exercise.
We learned agility, which is always a good skill. Almost a paradox, we became closer. Because when you are in crisis or emergency mode, you connect faster.
Was the increased focus on sustainability part of your brief when you came to Fedrigoni in 2018?
The acceleration has been very strong. It is not just our agenda on ESG, but the entire ecosystem. If I compare discussions with our customers and suppliers now, to when I joined, it’s at a very different intensity. The bar is increasingly set much higher in terms of what we need to do to defend our planet.
Fedrigoni is complex in terms of our impact because, upstream, we deal with a lot of raw materials that have their own complexity in terms of their environmental footprint. And our production process is extremely energy intensive. An energy transition is super high on the agenda, but so is waste.
But there is an additional layer of complexity, which is also an opportunity: our products play a relevant role downstream in the ESG performance of products created or packaged with our materials. So circularity, recyclability is super relevant.
Our paper of course is recyclable, but the ability to remove plastic from packaging is important in terms of how we develop our products to replace plastic. So avoid lamination, avoid the heavy coating, get the same performance as plastic. With paper this is a business opportunity!
Circularity depends on the performance of our product. So the product and business development has a lot to do with how we help our customers in their sustainability journey.
Public perception of the industry has evolved in the past decade or so, as ordinary people realise that paper is a renewable resource. So communication is important – does that affect the way you run the company?
Yes. But this acceleration in the relevance of ESG is also provoking either ‘greenwashing’ or twists in the storytelling, which we mustn’t do. However, there are trade-offs, and that’s why we called our ESG communication campaign ‘Making progress’, as opposed to ‘Doing miracles’!
We made clear promises on how much we would reduce CO2 emissions, improve gender diversity, help local communities, reduce waste and improve water performance, etc.
We have a full life cycle assessment (LCA) available on all of our products on demand with a certified methodology. So that if you ask me, ‘Okay, but this piece of paper or this piece of label, what’s the end-to-end carbon footprint?’ we are able to answer you accurately. Because you need to be fact-based in what you can promise and what you are achieving.
Co-creating and problem-solving with our customers, not just within ourselves, is relevant. To do that, we need to share data, get help from suppliers and better understand customers’ own trade-offs.
What would you like for Fedrigoni in the future?
My vision in the next five, ten years is for Fedrigoni to be even more of a global leader; for Fedrigoni to be considered the best home for smaller companies to join the family; and to create a large group, where innovation is recognised and where ESG performance is leading edge.
You once said you wanted to work with a ‘real’ company rather than a bank. Do your former colleagues in banking and investment understand sustainability in the way that paper industry professionals do?
I have experienced first hand the growing attention of investors with respect to ESG issues. Some were pioneers who rode the wave. Others just followed.
Now, if I think about our bond investors and shareholders, there is no-one who is not less than fully engaged in understanding and promoting our ESG performance and strategy, recognising that you don’t have the right to operate in the long-term unless you do a decent job on ESG. If you do it well, it will turn into a competitive advantage.