MUSEOWEB dell'economia varesina


Santino Gervasini and his sons, Antonio and Pasquale

The historic villas that have adorned the city of Varese and its surroundings with their monumental gardens for centuries have also served as an important driving force for the city’s economic development. In the least rural province of Lombardy, the landscaping and garden maintenance sector plays an important role within the overall agricultural sector, thus rendering the Varese area one of Italy’s most important plant nursery districts. The story of the Gervasini family and their company is particularly important, as it has been evolving for over a century along with the territory and the economy of the Varese area itself.

Santino Gervasini (1850-1924) began learning to take care of flowers and plants at an early age in the villas of Sant’Ambrogio Olona, his family’s hometown. In those days, a great deal of attention and effort was dedicated to the cultivation of flowers, whether in the garden or in the greenhouse. After having learned his trade and completed his apprenticeship alongside more experienced gardeners, Santino decided to leave his job as a gardener working for a single villa and opened his own business, which would allow him to offer his services to a rapidly growing client base. Santino eventually married Emilia Macchi (1850-1909) and the couple went on to have three children: Antonio (1883-1945), Pasquale (1897-1945) and Vittoria.

Following an apprenticeship with their father, in 1921 the two brothers established their own company, Fratelli Gervasini, with headquarters at no. 5 via Sacro Monte in Sant’Ambrogio Olona, a township that would be merged with the municipality of Varese six years later. While continuing to offer private landscaping and gardening services, the business was also specialized in flower cultivation. The company’s exceptional professionalism was recognized with a diploma awarded by the Varese Horticultural Society in 1922, which represented just the first of many acknowledgements that the company would receive over the years.

Although the company remained small and offered a limited range of services, the reputation of the Gervasini brothers grew and the company continued to operate successfully for nearly twenty years, up until the end of 1940. Antonio and Pasquale’s sister Vittoria, more commonly known as Vittorina, was also often involved in the company’s activities. The family’s internal organization of the work activities has always been based on a specific criterion: the women were in charge of flower sales and floral arrangements, while the men handled the gardening and the relationships with the customers, employees and suppliers.

In 1941, the two brothers decided to go their separate ways, thus giving rise to two different companies: Floricoltura Pasquale Gervasini, whose head offices were located in the Varese city centre at no. 1 via Magenta, and Floricoltura Antonio Gervasini, which remained on via Oriani in the town of Sant’Ambrogio. The latter company was inherited by Antonio’s widow, Maria Daverio, and their son, Santo, upon Antonio’s death in 1945, and continued operating under the name of “Floricultura Antonio Gervasini di Santo Gervasini” up until 1968.

Pasquale, who married Rosa Nicolini (1899-1976) in 1919, expanded his family during the 1920s and 1930s with the births of four sons: Dante (1922-1944), Franco (1925-1945), Mario (1929-1981) and Enrico (1937). His family was tragically decimated during the war, however, with the deaths of both Dante and Franco. Mario was just sixteen years old when his father Pasquale passed away in the fall of 1945, and the fate of the company lay in the hands of Pasquale’s widow, Rosa Nicolini.

Rosa Nicolini and her sons, Mario and Enrico

In April of 1949, the company was reconstituted as a sole proprietorship by Rosa Nicolini under the name of Floricoltura Pasquale Gervasini di Nicolini Rosa vedova Gervasini. While the head offices were initially located at a small flower shop, at no. 1 Via Magenta, other stores, plant nurseries and greenhouse gardening centres were opened over the years. Although the company continued to offer gardening services for private customers, it also became a prominent retailer of cut flowers and floral arrangements under Rosa Nicolini’s leadership.

Mario and Franco, in the meantime, learned the trade from their mother, thus allowing the company to once again offer services in the landscaping and garden maintenance sectors. In the wake of the so-called boom, the company grew rapidly and was able to successfully adapt to the needs of an evolving market. By integrating itself with the building industry, Gervasini was eventually able to offer services on a larger scale, for both private customers and public administrations alike. The company began performing landscaping services for new residential and industrial areas, and went on to broaden the geographical area in which its services were offered.

Thanks to the relationship that the company had instilled with Eni, Gervasini was entrusted with the landscaping and maintenance of numerous green areas present at service areas along the motorways, as well as various industrial plants (including Gela, Pisticci and Ferrara) and business centres (Eur in Rome, and Metanopoli in San Donato Milanese). Upon completing its landscaping work at Metanopoli in 1959, Gervasini maintained a headquarters in San Donato Milanese in order to facilitate the management of its work activities in the Milan and Pavia areas. Following the death of Enrico Mattei, the company built the Bascapè memorial park, which was designed by the great landscape architect Pietro Porcinai, and donated the park to Eni. In January of 1966, the two brothers partnered with their mother and the company’s capital of 300,000 lire was divided equally amongst the three partners. While the company’s head offices had been transferred to the residence on via Oriani a number of year earlier, the sales activities continued at a shop on Via Avegno and a kiosk in Piazza della Repubblica. The company’s staff also continued to grow, reaching a maximum of 80 employees during the 1960s and 1970s.

In September of 1970, the company’s new headquarters on Via Saffi were inaugurated in the presence of the Minister of Agriculture, Lorenzo Natali. In addition to the offices, nurseries and greenhouses, this new site also hosted one of Italy’s first garden centres: a pioneering activity that would provide for exceptional results over the years, in terms of both sales and company image. A two-storey building was built next to the new premises in order to house the families of the foremen. This allowed the company to achieve two important results: on the one hand providing for closer relations with the company’s employees, while on the other hand optimizing the organization of the work activities by allowing for the foremen to be present in the early morning hours.

In July of 1970, the company made the transition from a de facto company to a general partnership, with an increase in share capital from 300,000 to 30 million lire. Mario was the majority shareholder, with nearly two-thirds of the company capital, while Enrico held just under one third. Their mother, Rosa, on the other hand, held a symbolic share of just 100,000 lire. In the following months, however, Enrico left the company, reducing the capital by the total of his shares, while Rosa also withdrew her shares but remained on as a working partner. Following these adjustments, the company name was changed to Floricultura Pasquale Gervasini di Mario Gervasini e C. snc, and was comprised of Mario, as the lone capital shareholder, and Rosa as a working partner. Enrico initiated a professional career in the same field and currently serves as president for the Varese Horticultural Society.

Mario continued with the business, assisted by his mother and his wife, Maria Luisa Bottelli (1928), to whom he was married in 1952 and who bore him twins in 1953: Pasquale and Patrizia.

Mario Gervasini and his son, Pasquale. Internationalization

At the company’s new headquarters on via Saffi, Mario Gervasini’s company underwent significant expansion. The urban planning criteria were being increasingly influenced by a growing demand for private and public landscaping services. The public administrations, which had come into possession of the local parks and villas, found it increasingly difficult to maintain their own staff of gardeners and opted to entrust the work to specialized companies. The construction of new sports facilities and public gardens led to an increase in public spending, thus increasing business throughout the sector.

In the meantime, Gervasini expanded its range of services to include the maintenance of large sports facilities, a sector in which the company had enjoyed a number of successes, both in Italy and abroad: the company maintained the turf at Milan’s Meazza stadium from 1968 to 1990 and the sporting fields of Milanello for many years, and has even been in charge of Inter Milan’s training fields in Appiano Gentile (CO) since 1981. In 1990, Gervasini was assigned the task of restoring the Parc des Princes football pitch in Paris, a task which it carried out in record time.

Rosa Nicolini, who had served as the backbone of the company and the family for decades, passed away in 1976. Mario’s wife, Maria Luisa, joined the company to take her place. Their son, Pasquale, who had recently earned his degree in Agriculture and had learned the trade from his father at an early age, joined the company the following year. Pasquale was able to incorporate his expertise within the company’s production structure within just a few years, thus rapidly increasing his own leadership responsibilities. Pasquale also took his father’s teachings to heart in terms of his ethical and social responsibilities, as well as his role as an entrepreneur.

In 1979, Pasquale was appointed as the company’s legal representative and the two working partners, Pasquale and his mother Maria Luisa, agreed to a capital increase in 1980, whereby each partner would hold and equal share in the company. In 1981, however, Mario Gervasini met with an untimely death. Although the transition was traumatic, it did not result in any significant setbacks in terms of the company’s organization: By this time, Pasquale had already learned the trade and Maria Luisa, who directly managed the garden centre, had become a skilled and reliable presence at the company. The company was transformed from a general partnership into a limited liability company in 1983, with each partner continuing to hold 50% of the company’s shares: Pasquale Gervasini served as the company’s sole director alongside his mother, Maria Luisa Bottelli, who served as legal representative and ad negotia attorney.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Gervasini concluded a number of important contracts in the Persian Gulf. The first was a project on the island of Lavan, in Iran, where Eni had an extraction plant with an adjoining village for employees, and where Gervasini developed a large garden area from scratch. The second contract was awarded to Gervasini by the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, with a project aimed at mitigating the desert climate through the creation of a 430 hectare plantation near the city of Al Ain. Although the jobs were completed successfully, appropriate care companies were created in both cases in order to disassociate the family business from any unforeseen developments that might have arisen.

Another important customer that provided the company with continuous work for many years was the Milan Fairgrounds, which entrusted Gervasini with the creation of its temporary flower beds and garden structures. During this period the company even maintained an office and warehouse near the Milan fairgrounds, which were operational from 1980 to 2004. The sales outlets in Varese, on via Avegno and in piazza della Repubblica, were closed in 1979 and 1983 respectively. Around the year 1990, Pasquale made the difficult decision to abandon the greenhouse cultivation of annual plants, including cyclamen, primroses and poinsettias, which had been one of Gervasini’s flagship activities for decades. He really had no choice: within a highly competitive international market, the energy costs required to heat the greenhouses, combined with the costs of labour, had become too burdensome in relation to the quality and the prices of the products themselves.

The last twenty years

Over the last two decades, the company has expanded its activities in terms of landscaping and garden maintenance. Thanks to the skills and experience that it has acquired over the years, the company is now capable of carrying out all the various stages required for the work activities: including the site planning, the planting of the various tree species and the installation and maintenance of the irrigation and drainage systems. According to Pasquale Gervasini, the public has become increasingly aware of the important role that high-quality parks and gardens play in the public’s overall welfare.

With respect to the past, contracts for the construction of sports facilities have decreased dramatically in favour of public gardens, for which maximum attention is now dedicated to the maintenance of existing lawns and vegetation. The public administrations are also increasingly focusing upon the ecological redevelopment of urban and suburban areas. In fact, the company has been investing in this field since the 1980s, and has now become a market leader in terms of technical expertise and execution capabilities. With regard to the organization of the work activities, the uncertainties associated with the weather conditions have now been reduced to a minimum: thanks to an extensive information network, the company’s management is now capable of planning the timeframes for the work activities to be performed with a high degree of certainty. Furthermore, the physical fatigue of the work has also been attenuated with the use of highly advanced techniques and machinery.

Over the years, the marked seasonality of the work activities has been reduced thanks to numerous innovations, such as the potted cultivation of nursery plants, which can be transplanted during any month of the year. The issue of the natural lighting conditions nevertheless remains, and continues to limit the working days from dawn to dusk. Although they only represent a small percentage of the annual turnover, the sales activities at the Varese garden centre and the store in San Donato Milanese ensure the continuity of the work activities while diffusing the company’s visibility amongst gardening enthusiasts.

The diffusion of information technology within the field of landscape design has completely revolutionized the work activities, with software now being used to design and render every project. Gervasini now employs nearly 50 individuals at its various locations, including Varese and San Donato, as well as its current work sites. Plant nurseries are one of the most labour-intensive activities in the field of agriculture. In a period of general economic crisis like that which we are experiencing today, this factor had lead to the widespread use of illegal labourers, a practice which has become quite common in the field of garden maintenance. The vocational training structures are lacking and, as always, the best way to learn proper gardening techniques is to be flanked by expert personnel.

Specialized skills, on the other hand, like those of landscape architects and agronomists, are becoming more widespread. The company is historically linked to the Confagricoltura di Varese (the Varese Confederation of Agriculture), for which Pasquale Gervasini has served as president for nearly twenty years. In terms of environmental protection and workplace health and safety, Pasquale Gervasini Srl obtained ISO 14001 and ISO 18000 quality certification in 2011, while the company’s ISO 9001 certification dates back to 1999. The company’s constant dedication to quality is documented by the numerous diplomas and awards that it has received, some dating as far back as the 1920s.