Bankruptcy is a position no company wants to ever be facing, but Francesco Di Ciommo knows from experience that even that cloud has a silver lining.
“When you’re faced with that situation, you have the courage to experiment,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “You have nothing to lose.”
What is required, however, is creativity, along with the capability to action each idea immediately. For Di Ciommo, that was exactly the opportunity he grasped when he answered the personal request of Henry Ford’s great-great-granddaughter Elena in 2014 to turn around the failing fortunes of Authos, an official Ford dealership in Turin, Italy.
“From viewing the car over a video call to signing the documents digitally, we have shown the world that it is possible to sell a car online.”
A career entrepreneur with executive-level automobile industry experience at Fiat and McLaren, Di Ciommo’s initial involvement was in a consultancy capacity. He knew he needed to use all his expertise if he was to be successful, as well as his ability to see the positive in every situation.
At the time, the company had a cash account of US$145,000 and an annual turnover of US$75 million.
“Now, Authos is a company with €176 million [US$192 million] turnover and a cash account of €12 million [US$13 million],” he reveals. And the employee headcount has grown from 50, when he first joined a decade ago, to 300. His position in the business was formalized when he was named President and CEO in 2022, the same year he became the sole shareholder in the business.
Shaking up Tradition
To trace the path of his success at Authos, Di Ciommo points to his formative teenage years growing up in Salerno, a town close to Naples – and three events in particular. The first was losing his father at the age of 12. Not long after, he was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. Then, instead of finding support at school to help him adjust, he was met by a teacher who told his mother he would not achieve anything in life.
It was a pivotal moment for the young Di Ciommo.
“It became an opportunity to see my life differently, to never let people put you down, to never give up and to always move ahead in life,” he says.
It’s a mantra that continues to guide him in his personal and professional life.
Throwing himself into the challenge at Authos, Di Ciommo knew one thing had to change.
“The automotive industry is Jurassic,” he says. “It’s still rooted in traditional ways of promoting and selling cars.”
So he embarked on a regeneration of the company’s business model, hinged upon harnessing the power of the internet across the scope of the consumer journey, from the first point of customer contact to the delivery.
“From viewing the car over a video call to signing the documents digitally, we have shown the world that it is possible to sell a car online,” he says, adding that, as it stands, the business sells 85 percent of all inventory via the internet.
“It’s no longer about selling a car, it’s about engaging people.”
It also meant embracing the reach of social media.
“Greater Turin has a population of almost two million people,” he explains. “Of that, a huge percentage are online every day, so if we could be there in their own homes and reach them on their sofas, the company had a chance.”
Soon, the company was investing a high proportion of its marketing budget in social media and it was clear an important distinction had been made.
“All our effort is now channeled towards engagement, rather than sales,” he says. “It’s no longer about selling a car, it’s about engaging people.”
This mindset shift was the catalyst for yet another innovation, the inauguration in 2017 of a dealership inside Turin’s Shopville Le Gru di Grugliasco shopping mall.
“Time is the one thing people don’t have enough of, so this is a way we can meet our customers where they are, instead of them coming to us,” he says.
Within a year, 1,300 cars were sold and more than 20,000 test drives carried out.
This evolution of the dealer concept, called Smart Lab, has proven so successful that Ford has introduced the concept in 45 locations worldwide, including Shanghai and New York, and Elena Ford has personally praised Di Ciommo as a ‘retail guru’. He expects further Smart Lab dealerships to roll out over the next four years in Italy as well.
The Human Factor
Along with turning to technology and engagement to draw the business back from the brink of bankruptcy, he has also placed an enormous emphasis on human capital and hiring talent who believe in the company.
“There are clear objectives, clear paths and clear moves and everybody knows where to go and we are all going in one direction,” he says.
This has also brought with it a shakeup of the traditional employee profile, with Di Ciommo explaining that he has reduced the average age working in the company from 50 to 34 years old. Women make up 35 percent of the workforce – an impressive increase, given that only two percent of the company was female when he took over.
There has also been a push to integrate different nationalities into the team and offer up positions to people of all abilities. After all, he understands more than most that everybody deserves to have an opportunity, no matter the difficulties they have faced in life.
“I really believe that a company’s success comes not only from money, but also from the sum of its other contributions.”
Now Authos is back on firm footing, Di Ciommo has wasted no time shoring up the company’s ESG credentials. In early 2023, it was recognized as a Società Benefit, a legal status in Italy for companies that mix profit and purpose.
“We are not only a company that is about making money, we are strongly implementing inclusion, environmentally-friendly practices and good governance,” he says. In late 2023, Di Ciommo received the award for excellence in the automotive industry for innovation and sustainability at the highly-regarded Le Fonti Awards.
Di Ciommo hopes to see others in the industry follow his lead.
“It’s important that we move away from the notion of profit and loss to virtuousness,” he says. “By that, I mean not only economically sustainable but also socially sustainable and inclusive.
“I really believe that a company’s success comes not only from money, but also from the sum of its other contributions. And if that adds up, then maybe the next generation can enjoy a better way of living.”