From Cheese to Fashion: Exploring the Family Businesses of Italy

By Brandon Jernigan, MBA ’24

By: Staff
people gathered around a table lit up with large video screen display.

Participants of the Family Businesses in Italy Trek gather around a display table at the Lavazza Museum in Turin, Italy

Thanks to popular dramas like HBO’s Succession and The White Lotus, and even CW’s criminally underrated Dynasty, family business is not a new concept, but having the opportunity to study family businesses is a bit of a rarity. I, for one, didn’t think I would have a chance to get a front-row seat, but in April, I joined the third annual Smith Family Business Initiative’s Family Businesses in Italy Trek, a 1.5-credit course offered by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. The trek was led by Daniel Garrett Van Der Vliet, John and Dyan Smith Executive Director of Family Business, and supported by a fantastic program team. While the trek wasn’t quite as dramatic as the ending of The White Lotus, and we weren’t in Sicily, there was plenty of adventuring, a lot to be learned, and many friends to be made.

three men standing at the front of a room with the backs of the audience in the foreground.
Dann Van Der Vliet (right, standing), John and Dyan Smith Executive Director of Family Business, joined by Alessandro Ceriani (left standing), corporate tax and M&A advisor and adjunct professor at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and Università degli Studi di Brescia, and chef Christian Costardi (center, standing), speaks to students at Caffè San Carlo in Turin

A rich experience—and a tight schedule

In the spirit of Lady Gaga’s infamous interview clip, the rhythm of the trek can be roughly articulated as: No sleep. Bus, learn, ’nother bus, business tour, next place. It was an active, immersive learning experience, and we made the most of every minute, whether visiting companies, listening to lectures, or staying up at night in chic Italian venues over wine and cups of thick, bold espresso, chatting and bonding.

people dressed in white plastic smocks and caps in a room lined with shelves of large cheese rounds.
Students visit Eredi Baruffaldi, a Gorgonzola cheese manufacturer, in Castellazzo Novarese, a city in the Piedmont region

Over seven days, we visited nine family businesses across three of northern Italy’s largest cities—Turin, Milan, and Bologna. We encountered businesses ranging from manufacturing to high-end luxury fashion, and it changed my conception of family businesses.

Embracing Italy

The trek was not just about business, but about history and culture as well. While in Turin, we visited the National Museum of Italian Reunification and learned about the city’s history as the capital of Italy before Rome. We also experienced Piedmont cuisine through the Michelin-starred eyes of Chef Christian Costardi.

Night time view of the Po River .in Turin
Night time view of the Po River in Turin

In Trivero, we gasped over the gorgeous grounds of Casa Zegna and then again at the Davines Group in Parma. Perhaps it was the meticulous detail of Zegna’s textile crafting and the entire community it had built around itself; maybe it was the Davines Group’s calming, regenerative village. Either way, beauty abounded, and we learned that for many of these businesses, a workplace was not just a desk and a chair. The innate purpose of a workplace, stemming from the vision of their founders, was about delivering quality of life, and doing their best to make the world a better place.

Life the Italian family business way

Every business we encountered focused on sustainability, preservation, and providing something for the next generation. As someone who believes in sustainability and appreciates ESG, I was reminded that business resiliency hinges on community efforts. In the words of Alessio Altariva, enologist and winemaker and third-generation owner of his family winery Fattoria Moretto, “Community comes first, and business comes second.” Perhaps that is the secret to the longevity of Italian businesses.

If my MBA has taught me only one thing, it’s that community among Cornellians is like no other and that we are always happy to share our time and talents to help us all collectively move forward. The Family Businesses in Italy Trek was an experience like no other, and I hope that for all of us, the lessons learned, and connections made will be a source of wisdom as we pursue our own goals.

A large group group of students seated at long tables raise their glasses in a toast.
Participants of the Family Businesses in Italy Trek raise their glasses in a toast at the farewell dinner.


About Brandon Jernigan, MBA ’24

headshot of Brandon Jernigan.

Brandon Jernigan is on the verge of completing his MBA at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University through the Executive MBA Americas program, where he has immersed himself in understanding entrepreneurship and venture capital. Jernigan joined the Johnson Summer Startup Accelerator program to experience firsthand the challenges and rewards of launching a startup. In his role as a Big Red Ventures fund associate, he delved into venture capital, including deal sourcing, due diligence, and the development of investment theses. Beyond academia, Jernigan specializes in strategic marketing communications as a consultant for an institutional investment consulting firm.