Whether you're buying or selling, it's possible to do business successfully with Sicilian firms. To avoid complexities and ensure
that things go smoothly, it's best to keep several important factors
in mind. Communication and organization are the most important areas. As a general rule, buying is much easier than selling. Here are some guidelines.
To avoid misunderstandings which can occur even under the best
circumstances, it's best to write all correspondence in Italian.
Hire a well-educated native speaker of Italian to do these translations.
Don't entrust the task to somebody who learned Italian in school.
Most Sicilian firms which lack English-speaking staff are willing
to find an interpreter in the event that you visit Sicily to meet
with the responsible parties --though the interpreter's skills
may not be exceptional. As far as English language study is concerned, Sicily lags behind northern Italy.
It's always best to define in advance as many details of a transaction
as possible. Since Sicilians think in a linear manner, schedules and
shipping dates are not rigorously respected. Routine transactions
like wire transfers can take much longer than they would in England, the United States
or Japan. It's possible to work around these difficulties
if you expect them as a reality of doing business in Sicily.
At initial meetings, Sicilians may try to get to know you before
discussing business. This is natural for them. It's considered rude to
refuse a cocktail or cup of coffee, and meetings over lunch are
In general, it's better to avoid the chambers of commerce and other official trade organizations. Their personnel are not exceptionally
competent, and many owe their positions to personal friendship with
a politician or well-connected colleague rather than to their
own professional expertise. If, for example, you ask a trade organization
representative to suggest a good producer of a certain type of
olive oil, he may recommend a producer he knows rather than one who would be more suitable. Sicilian business reflects a strange mix of capitalism and socialism, and the best political appointees are not always the best trade representatives. Many are lifetime bureaucrats who've never had much practical business experience. That's not an asset when your success depends on their efforts.
Keep cultural realities in mind. Most Sicilian firms are family-owned. In some cases, a wife, daughter or sister works in the firm. In general, however, you will rarely find women in responsible managerial
positions. Under certain conditions, it may be best to entrust
face-to-face negotiations to a man rather than a woman. If a younger
woman (let's say under 45) handles important negotiations, she should
be sure to dress professionally yet conservatively. Having said that, it is worth mentioning that many businessmen in Italy seem to take foreign businesswomen more seriously than they do Italian ones. A few are remarkably open minded.
Don't expect to accomplish much in July or August. Sicilians go on vacation in August.
Buying and Selling
Sicily's major exports are pasta, wine, olive oil and other agricultural products, decorative and practical ceramics, and furniture. Depending on where your business is actually based, you won't encounter too
many problems buying (importing) Sicilian products, although Sicilian
firms are often reluctant to grant exclusive distribution rights
to foreign agents. Selling to Sicilians is entirely different. Even in commerce, many Sicilians are slightly suspicious. Sicilian firms usually don't buy from companies they don't know well unless they have an urgent or desperate need for a certain product unavailable elsewhere.
It's good to exercise prudence where certain services are concerned. Buying Sicilian products for sale outside Italy is quite straightforward. Services like consulting and e-commerce are another matter, since many of the Sicilian firms involved in these areas do not have personnel who are highly trained. Online business has not been a great success in Sicily, mostly because the people involved in it are often lacking in a real knowledge of international marketing techniques. (We've only found a few new Sicilian firms trying to sell online internationally which most people would consider genuinely competent.)
Cash flow can be a nightmare. As a generality, Sicilians are slow to remit payments. Often very slow. Even monthly salaries are typically paid several months late, on the part of government agencies as well as private sector employers. (It drives employees crazy!) If money is due you, try to get as much of it as possible in advance, or you may wait for months (even years) to receive your payment.
Expect the unexpected. Most Sicilian business people are essentially
honest and want to sell their products or services. However, they
often presume that practices that exist in Sicily are equally
valid abroad and are sometimes surprised to find this isn't always the case.
When you do business in a foreign country, it's often best to retain a reliable consultant familiar with that country's language, customs and business environment. Since virtually anybody can call himself a "business consultant," it isn't always easy to find a consultant in Sicily who is both competent and ethical. If you're serious about doing business in Sicily, it's worth visiting our Shopping & Services Page, which links to sites of reputable consulting firms. A good consultant can assist you in finding, and negotiating with, Sicilian firms suitable to your needs.