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Doing Business in Sicily.

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 normal.

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.

Buyer Beware
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.

Good Advice
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.

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