Monthly Archives: December 2013

La Deutsche Vida

Foreign family business and capital flight. The case for a fraud to fail

By Giovanni Favero, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (

The research here proposed is a micro-analysis of a business ending in bankruptcy in the aftermaths of the first oil shock, concerning the Italian subsidiary of a German wareenamelling group established in the town of Bassano in 1925. Following the budget reports and the interviews with the former entrepreurs, the company flourished until the 1960s, when managerial and entrepreneurial successions emphasized the growing difficulties deriving from growing labour costs. A tentative reorganization of the company was hindered in 1968 by union resistance and political pressures for the preservation of employment levels. In 1975 the board of directors decided to declare bankruptcy as a consequence of the huge budget losses. However, a subsequent inquiry of the Italian tax authority discovered an accounting fraud concerning hidden profits in 1974 and 1975. The fraud disclosure shows how historical conditions could create the convenience for performance understatement not only for fiscal purposes, but also in order to make divestment possible. However, it is also used here as an element to argue that business sources and the story they tell should not be taken at their face value, and that a different reconstruction of the company’s path to failure is possible. The literature concerning the missed recognition of opportunities is then mobilised in order to interpret the inconsistencies that emerge from the triangulation of business archives, press columns and interviews with union representatives and politicians. This allows to put back into perspective what results as an obsession of company management with labour costs, concealing the importance of other competitive elements, such as the increasing specialisation of the producers of home appliances. This ‘refractive error’ may be typical of businesses operating in (presumed) mature industries at international level, where wage differentials offer the opportunity to pursue quite literally exploitation much further.


Reviewed by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-15 and offers an interesting combination of business and accounting history around the long-term performance of the Italian assets of an Austrian family business (named Westens). The investment relates to a enamelling plant in the town of Bassano in 1925 (called Smalteria Metallurgica Veneta or SMV, today part of BDR Thermea). The Bassano plant was one of the largest factories of glazed products (for use in electric water heaters, bathtubs and heating products like radiators). Favero’s story takes us from its origins until the Westens leave the company in 1975. Activities, however, continued and by “the end of the 1970s the company focused its production in the heating sector… In the mid-eighties the company expanded into foreign markets. “[see further here].

Air photo of original factory (Source:

Air photo of original factory (Source:

The narrative gyrates around the Bassano plant, some three generations of Westens and an equal number of internal grown talent at the helm of SMV. Favero argues that the reason behind the origins of SMV and other similar investments in Central and Easter Europe by the Westens was to overcome growing protectionism and the end of Empire. However, the number of secondary references suggests the SMV case is relevant for Italian business history and perhaps, more could have been said about this. Nevertheless, we can follow the changes in corporate governance, the attitude of the family to foreign investments, the changing relationship between national branches and SMV’s “strategy” (a term used rather loosely by the author) as the 20th century progresses. Also how the plant was established on the basis of a then unique process of enamelling, a source of competitive advantage that also erodes as time goes by. Some discussion about the role of Chandler’s “first mover advantage” within family business would have been desirable here.

It is evident that Favero has had access to a large number of source material (including oral histories and fiscal authority memoranda and investigative papers). Yet the case is rather short and this result in the narrative progressing some time in jumps rather than a smooth flow. For instance, it is only until the end that we learn why the fraud was discovered five years after the original owners declared bankruptcy. Namely the intervention of the Italian government to maintain employment kept the plant (or the company, its not clear) afloat. There is also reference to some “bad blood” between the Westens and the Italians but we are not totally sure why and when. There are indications of growing tensions with unions and Favero tries to make a case about “management’s “obsession with labour costs”. We could also benefit from learning about the inconsistencies Favero between different sources. Perhaps an idea would be to add a timeline where one side maps changes in strategy, corporate governance or in the ruling family and the other side maps changes in the environment.

However, in its present form this makes a potentially useful teaching case in a world economic history, international business or globalisation course. Favero also claims the SMV case is part of a larger project looking at Westens’ investments in different countries. I certainly look forward to future instalments.

Giovanni Favero

Giovanni Favero

So, who was lightning the bulb in Latin America?

Foreign Electricity Companies in Argentina and Brazil: The Case of American and Foreign Power (1926 – 1965)
[Original title: Companhias estrangeiras de eletricidade na Argentina e no Brasil: o caso da American & Foreign Power (1926-1965]

By Alexandre Macchione Saes (, Universidade de São Paulo – FEA/USP and Norma S. Lanciotti (, Universidad Nacional de Rosario – CONICET



The article analyses the evolution, strategies and position of American & Foreign Power subsidiaries in electric power sector in Argentina and Brazil from their entry in the mid-1920s to their nationalisation. We compare the economic performance and entry strategies followed by the American holding in different host economies. We also examine the relations between the American electricity firms and the Governments of both countries, focusing on the debates and policies that explain American & Foreign Power’s withdrawal from Argentina and Brazil in 1959-1965. Finally, the article reviews the role of foreign direct investment in the development of electric power sector in both countries. The study is based upon the Annual Reports and Proceedings of American & Foreign Power (1923-1963) and other corporate reports, Government statistics and official Reports from Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-11-02. Its topic deals with the popular subject of energy provision. Indeed, there has been no shortage of turning points in the history of the energy markets around the world. Since the development of the electricity in the late nineteenth century, energy markets have been a constant cause for debate. The discussion ranges from technical and engineering issues (such as heated debates around Nikola Telsa and Thomas Alva Edison), to the adoption of common standards, to questions as to who will provide the service, to a wider debate on government policies such as pricing and, more recently, on how to become “greener” (see for example the debate on UK gas and electricity providers).


In the developing countries, the debate on energy has been tied to the relation between the foreign direct investment, the efficient provision of electricity, and nationalization policies (topics that, by the way, were picked up from a business history perspective in William J. Hausman, Peter Hertner & Mira Wilkins “Global Electrification” (2008, CUP). The question on the relation between foreign companies investing in such countries and the debate on the effects of imperialism is also latent in recent research (see for example the work of Marcelo Bucheli, Stephanie Decker, or Niall Ferguson). In this line of work, the paper by Macchione Saes and Lanciotti further explores the intricate relationship between a foreign company and its host countries but, at the same time, offers a contribution to the literature on Latin American foreign investment during the second half of the twentieth century.

According to Alexandre Macchione and Norma Lanciotti, the arrival of the American and Foreign Power Co in Brazil and Argentina marked the start of an expansion of US direct investment in those countries, while seeking new consumer markets during the 1920s (p. 2). However, it is important to notice that the company arrived to the region more than 20 years after the first electricity companies had established. Therefore, the case of American and Foreign Power Co offers an example of the aggressive expansion of an electricity company that only few years after its arrival suffered the effects of the crisis of 1929 and later on, had to deal with centralization and nationalization policies.


The aim of the paper is to analyse the evolution, strategies, and position of the American and Foreign Power Company in both countries between 1926 and 1965. Divided in four sections, including an introduction and the concluding remarks, it presents first the greater attention that US companies gave to Latin America after the First World War, looking mainly to the evolution of the company in the US market and the subsidiaries in Brazil and Argentina. Then, the paper discusses the shift of the regulation and describes the complex relation between the state and the company. As a result, the main sections widely discuss the investment strategies which focus was in improving the service while achieving higher returns.

Three important issues emerge from this paper, namely:

1) The US investment was dominated by a few large holding companies that controlled the utilities supply in various countries. The localization in South America answers to both the search of economies of scale through new consumer markets and the need to diversify investment (p. 3). In order to keep growing in the local markets, the electricity companies acquired small and medium concessions keeping their organizational structure. Clearly, this served to the purpose of increasing returns, but there is no mention of the effects of this choice in the need for improving the service. In other words, how efficient the company became as a result of greater scale.

2) The effects of the Great Depression were greater than expected for the directors of the company. As explained by Macchione and Lanciotti, their main concern was that currency devaluation would damage the sustainability and profitability of their investments (p. 13), but they did not expect the shifted in the regulation that followed in the 1930s and 1940s. The link between government policy and business strategy is then questioned by the authors and the company strategies are evaluated. Small differences between the two countries are noticed, opening space for a future discussion on how foreign companies deal with diverse economic and political contexts, including an analysis of their role as regulators.

American and Foreign

3) One of the main factors for the company’s decision to withdraw from the region was the expropriation lead by the Latin American governments since the late 1950s (p.22). But to what extent expropriations responded to the inefficiency of the company? Macchione and Lanciotti explained that the low quality of the service added to the fluctuation of the long-term revenues and, in some cases, led to the confiscation of assets by the local national government. These arguments, of course, are not to minimise political and nationalistic ideas driving the confiscation of assets in Latin America during the twentieth century.

In summary, the paper Macchione and Lanciotti offers a case study that brings together elements from Latin American economic history that deserve more attention. These include the role of state, the interaction between businesses and regulators, foreign direct investment, and the relative efficiency of domestic acquisitions by foreign companies in the long-term. This paper is an important contribution to understand from the company perspective the links between strategy and government policies.