Maria Teresa Sassano, vice-president of Confindustria, talks about her last entrepreneurial challenge: “The Master’s pasta”.

Maria Teresa, let’s start by saying what “Master’s Pasta” is.

If I had to choose a single adjective I would say that it is a “natural” pasta. The lines that we produce are all naturally gluten-free since we use only flours of legumes and cereals. They are processed without emulsifiers or additives, we do not use not even the natural ones. There are only two ingredients: water and flour. That’s it. It seems simple, but on the contrary, it’s not. Gluten- free pastas are in fact very complicated since it lacks the protein that thickens, that makes the dough soft and makes so that the pasta keeps cooking without breaking. So, to make sure that the dough ties, the industrial companies use additives, whereas here we only use one particular mixing technique and a type of drying that allow us to make a mixture and a paste that doesn’t break.

But who is this “master”?

One day I met the master Carlo Fusco who is a young man of 86 years, master pasta maker since 1943 and I confessed to him that I wanted to start a new business in the food sector. At the same time he complained of being retired, he told me that he could not stay without doing anything, the children had started other activities and unfortunately the risk was that his art would be lost.

And so your partnership was born.

I seized this opportunity. “Mr Carlo – I asked him – what would you say about helping us to start the plant?” I told him about my son Michele who is 29 years old and who would like to devote himself to an entrepreneurial activity of production. “Sure! I’d love to!” he answered. Mr. Carlo lives in Termoli, I asked him if it is not a problem to move to Manfredonia, but I only saw the eyes of this old man who shone at the idea of this new project. In short, without making it long, this project was born as follows: the master began to do train my son, he was here with us five months and still comes once every fortnight to the company to make sure that the dough preserves always the same characteristics. He taught Michele all the techniques of mixing transferring his art to the new generations, which is also the foundation of the mission statement of Confindustria.

In the meantime, do you still work on security in companies?

Yes, of course, in addition to this new project I continue to follow my historical company.

This pasta factory was born from the desire to create a generational exchange, but is there anything about Maria Teresa Sassano, too? What has you brought in this new adventure of your entrepreneurial experience?

I tell you the truth, do you want to know why the idea of a gluten-free product was born? At 45 years old I have found out I was celiac; my work leads me to spend a lot of time away from home in the restaurants and often I found it difficult to eat some good gluten-free pasta. At a certain point I decided that I would make my own pasta.

Gluten-free foods are not just a trend…

No, no, absolutely not a trend. Look, there’s a whole world behind gluten-free: you can’t imagine how many people are sick with celiac disease, how many are gluten intolerant, and how many for prevention are forced to insert in the diet products without gluten.

To which countries do you currently export your product?

We have started to export to the United States, Canada and Europe, of course we are also present in Italy. The distribution is intended for high level catering. In the meantime, we have started a process of collaboration with the international magazine of cuisine “Italia Squisita” and our pasta has been reviewed by ten Michelin-starred chefs of the calibre of Luigi Taglienti, Andrea Migliaccio, Alfonso Caputo and others. They have tested the quality at the stove of our products dedicating recipes to us.

So we can officially say it: gluten-free pasta is as good as the traditional pasta…

Well, oh, my God, I’m biased, but they also say that, and they know about cooking.

Who is Maria Teresa? Can you tell us more about you?

She’s a woman who’s always worked. I’m a first-generation entrepreneur, I’m from a very simple family, my parents were farmers. I did not inherit my current company. At the age of 25, as soon as I finished my studies, I immediately began to work in the financial and insurance sectors, then I decided to start with a company of my own and I have become a competent technician in environmental acoustics and technical protection and prevention in the workplace.

How did your experience in Confindustria come about?

I registered with the Young Group. It was a very important experience because I had the opportunity to confront colleagues from all over Italy. And for me, coming from a village of the province of Foggia that comparison has represented an important occasion of growth, first of all personal and then also professional. A way, in short, to leave the province mindset. I immediately became passionate about the associative life, it’s like a mission, it requires so much time and sacrifice but it becomes a very fertile ground for building positive relationships. Today I am national vice president of Small Industry and regional president of Confindustria Giovani with delegation to Tourism and to the internationalization of the international supply chains. A role that is very well connected to Puglia, whose economy today is based on tourism and food.

I have to tell you, during the drive to get here, we were disconcerted for the condition of the roads. I ask this to you who are part of the ruling class of Confindustria: how do we talk about the internationalization of companies when once off the highway in Cerignola, to get to
Manfredonia you must drive along a totally dark road, without adequate signage and with the road surface so badly damaged that it is difficult to believe that it is really a street?

See, all we do is put the issue of infrastructure at the heart of the public debate at all levels. Infrastructure is everything and when we talk about infrastructure we also and above all talk about roads, bridges, high speed. If there is no support to infrastructure investment, but where do we go? Do you know that to send just two pallets of product in Canada, for a market test that we are carrying out in Montreal, I had to bear transport costs of €400? Do you know that to attend a meeting in Milan I am forced from Foggia to take a train that is not high speed and take not less than 6-7 hours, or otherwise go back to Bari, leave the car and arrive in Milan by flight with a burden of costs that I let you to imagine. Doing business for a small company is really hard.

I’m sorry for the term… but how can you not be pissed off?

Of course we get angry, but it doesn’t change anything. We could do an endless controversy, but we remain powerless. In the end, we can only move forward because we believe in the projects, we want to realize them and to do that we bang our head.

We can at least be optimistic, is anything changing?

No. Unfortunately, there is still not a good feeling among Entrepreneurs.

What’s wrong?

At the moment there are no government policies for development. You know how long it took me to open this new plant? There are two years of waiting and bureaucracy behind it only to get a clearance.

Can I afford to ask you a bad question?

Of course, go ahead and tell me.

In the light of the many difficulties faced by entrepreneurs, how lucky is your son to have a mother already entrepreneur and manager of Confindustria?

Michele is very lucky, I have no problem admitting it. I’m 48 years old and with the experience that I have matured I can intercept his possible mistakes and I can therefore be a guide for him.

To a young person who today wants to start a business like yours, small but with innovative character, what advice would you offer?

The advice that I would feel to give is to do so much training at companies that already produce the same things he wants to do. You have to learn first, otherwise it becomes a suicide. On the economic side, it should certainly have a basis, so family support, access to credit or must find a financial partner. Without these possibilities you fail.

Thank you for your honesty, but put it in this way, the situation is really discouraging.

I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. By yourself, unfortunately, you only risk failure. It is wrong when you think that a company is created and set up only with the help of purchase of machinery: once started, a company needs time before it arrives at the break- even. And all the time that passes means only fixed costs to be incurred each month. Often these things are not told to young people: you don’t just have to start a business, you have to keep it until it’s up and running.

Let’s go back to your experience in Confindustria. One of the topics of current affairs concerns the opportunities or, if you like, difficulties, that women have to emerge in the world of work, in politics or  in associationism: what is your testimony?

I tell you that I have always been treated with respect. Then there are also the stupid men and women, but this is a problem that affects both genders. On the other hand, I have to admit that here in the South the woman must always give a little more and show that there is more than just the nice  look. If a man is good then he’s good, that’s it. If a woman is good, then she has to prove it and she has to make fewer mistakes than the others.

You produce pasta, do you also like to cook?

If I start cooking, I’m discreet. The point is that cooking bores me, it’s not one of my qualities. I have always cooked, I tell you the truth, only for my son. For the rest I prefer to eat it, the pasta.

And what do you like to eat?

I believe that the dishes must also be beautiful to see. Tasty for the eyes, as well as for the palate. I like small portions, very simple dishes. I prefer second courses and appetizers, I eat a lot of fish and Mediterranean cuisine in general.

In Confindustria you also deal with topics related to tourism. Do you believe is it possible to take opportunities from Matera as European Capital of Culture?

The answer is “ni”. This is a great opportunity, there is great sensitivity but there is no adequate mobility yet, we require even better organization. I have the impression that there is more visibility than operation. We have done a good job on image, now we have to train entrepreneurs: in recent years many small realities of the tourism industry have been a little bit improvised, there are people who from one day to the other have transformed a private structure  in a bed and breakfast or in a farm. The objective is strengthening basic training and focus on leaving the seasonality.