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Outdoor living is good business for me

After several changes of ownership, the Emu Group is focusing on expansion. «More exports and contracts with large hotel chains» says Roberto Ambroso, managing director of the Umbria-based company specialized in outdoor furniture

Outdoor living is good business for me

This is Italy Team

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The company is the one that produced the Rio in 1966, the classical white wire mesh chair whose paint began to chip off the edges after a few years, invariably snagging a ladies' pantyhose. It can certainly be considered the icon of outdoor living, with about 8 million pieces sold. The Umbria-based manufacturer, Emu Group is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and it has been through many crises and restructurings. A few months ago, after a long uphill period, it started showing a profit again, thanks to the arrival of new managers and new financial resources. The outdoor furniture group was acquired, last December, by the private equity fund Opera, after a tumultuous life of ups and downs. Emu (Elettro-Meccanica Umbra) was founded in Marsciano (Perugia) on June 8, 1951, by two brothers, Aldo and Angelo Biscarini, with Dante Menconi, who decided to put to use the experience they had acquired as radio technicians for the army during the war in Africa, by opening a workshop specialized in the production of equipment for military use, which later became one of the first companies in the world to develop and patent a treatment for plasticizing metal parts. At the end of the Fifties came the conversion of the production to the garden furniture sector: in particular, Emu experimented with the use of PVC instead of the costlier propylene, and it was just this new processing technique that enabled the company to obtain its first order for garden furniture.

Then, in 1993, came a change in the management when Riccardo Biscarini, Aldo and Piero Ciabatti and Jan Triska relaunched the business project, creating the Emu Group. In 2005 the majority shareholding was acquired by the L Capital fund of the French luxury group Lvmh with Biscarini remaining, however, as partner and manager. In 2009 Biscarini bought back all the shares, but at the end of 2010 Emu returned into the hands of a fund, Opera, an entry that did not change the company organization, as the entire management was confirmed. Now the group wants to give further impetus to a development that has been in progress for the last 18 months, also thanks to the strengthening of the company equity.

As regards turnover, while 2009 closed with 26 million euros and 2010 with 29.5 million, the forecasts for this year are up to 32 million, while for 2012 they are talking about 34.5 million. «The performance in the early months of the 2011 season, up 12% over the same period of last year, is in line with our goals, although the market context is still very difficult and sluggish» Roberto Ambroso, one of the two managing directors, with Giorgio Comodi, tells Panorama Economy. The furniture produced by the company is sold both to private individuals for their gardens and terraces, and to large restaurant and hotel chains all over the world, and indeed, the lion's share of business comes from abroad. «At the level of distribution, we are moving strongly in the direction of exports, that now account for 60% of our sales, with particular attention to Germany and the other German language countries, and the Far East like India, Singapore and Australia» continues the manager. The German market, with 600 million euros at the level of wholesalers, is the largest market, followed by France (where Emu has 12% of its total sales) and Italy. «The farther north we go, the more we find the culture of the outdoor living, because the private space is lived in more than the public space» continues Ambroso, although the number one market for Emu is the U.S.

The history of the Umbria-based company is marked by a number of specific events: the first lawn chair was the Cattolica, designed by the founder Biscarini and produced starting in 1961. The breakthrough came with the success of the Rio, while the Seventies coincided with the production of the Bahama beach chair, still a classic, and the period when Emu filed its patent for the plastification of iron and consolidated its position of leadership in metal furniture. In the Eighties, the lines of products began to differentiate and in 1983 the company produced the Ambassador chair in aluminum, while in 1984 plastic models and the Lotus chairs in synthetic resin appeared.

But it was with the arrival of the L-capital fund that the company entered the sector of accessible luxury and design with its symbol products: Round by Christophe Pillet, Heaven by Jean-Marie Massaud and Cross by Rodolfo Dordoni were the first collections that in 2007 formed the Advanced line. They were followed by Re-Trouvé by Patricia Urquiola, Ivy by Paola Navone, Intrecci by Carlo Colombo, Open by Hoisl e Andreucci, until we come to the Pattern by Arik Levy. This design vocation soon led the company to present a new collection, developed with the architect Jean Nouvel. Design and innovation: in the last two years 80 new products have been launched and another thirty are on the launching pad. «For the next two years we have an intense program of development in the works, with new products based on processes using steel, for which we have strong skills. In addition, we are undertaking a new program of investments to improve the performance and competitiveness of some of our historical products» continues Ambroso. The managing director indicates three main strategies to relaunch the company: «Pursuing the Design for Outdoor Living project, strengthening our core business of the classical metal products, and giving new impetus to our contract business for hotels, a sector that is crucial for us».

The Opera fund is specialized in the valorization of companies with specific skills in market niches (its portfolio already includes brands like Pinco Pallino, Vetrerie Riunite, Minotti Cucine and Gfm industria) and new agreements are in the offing. «We are prepared to engage in partnerships with Italian companies that have skills in sectors complementary to our own. There are many opportunities for joining forces and putting high quality products made in Italy on the market, with particular features that make them more attractive than those of our Asian competitors» concludes Ambroso.

There is certainly no shortage of companies with the specialization of garden furniture in Italy, in search of fresh financial resources in view of their high level of debt. One notable name (on which the market is betting) is that of Unopiù. It would be a perfect marriage, since Opera had sold it in 2006 to another institutional investor, Synergo, that is now in search of buyers.

Francesca Vercesi

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