Italian style, U.S. muscle: Hills re-brand ancient Venice glassworks

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Vernon and Shirley Hill, posing with a Murano day glass time piece.

In 2010, around the time Vernon and Shirley Hill opened Metro Bank PLC in London, the Philadelphia banker and his designer wife were making another investment across Europe: They bought a minority stake in Seguso Vetri D’Arte, a hand-blown lighting and art-glass company in Venice’s ancient Murano glassmaking district.

With Metro Bank, the Hills were taking on established British banks, building an aggressive new lender that’s now worth $4 billion. With Seguso, the mission is different: The Hills aimed to rebuild a brand in partnership with a family that traces its foundry back 23 generations, to 1397.

“We are really lucky to get the Hills on board,” co-owner Pierpaolo Seguso told me from the company’s Lexington Avenue showroom in New York. “The goal was to build a world-class brand and get our family business — that’s what we are, a small manufacturer —  to the next level. We got a boost, and the relationship is better than we expected. Obviously it is not a quick process. With the investment in promotion and marketing, we are really starting to see the momentum. We are pleased, and busy.”

“It’s a magic company that has a 620-year tradition of doing the world’s best work,” says Vernon Hill in the Philadelphia offices of Republic First Bancorp, where he is chairman and lead investor. Shirley Hill collects Murano glass, displaying airy, bright vases, long-stemmed hand-blown chandeliers, and a towering sundial at the couple’s supermarket-sized Moorestown palazzo home, which they call Villa Collina — Hill House. Signature Seguso art pieces decorate the Four Seasons Hotel in Dubai,  the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and Las Vegas casinos.

The financial freeze of the late 2000s hit Murano glassmaking firms hard: “They lost their ability to raise capital. Loans froze. Luxury business is the first to stop, and people stopped buying. It was a perfect storm,” says Joseph Del Raso, senior partner at Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, who guided the Hills in the steps of doing business in Italy.

Murano’s glassmakers have met technical and business changes across centuries. But like many old firms, Seguso combined creative design with conservative production and business methods. “We have this historical company, a great knowledge, top position. But they needed to open for them the American market and other markets,” with “money and the technical marketing competence of a Vernon Hill,” says Andrea Canepari, a native of the Venice region and Italy’s former consul general in Philadelphia.

Canepari calls the Hill-Seguso deal a milestone in the region’s recent trans-Atlantic investment. The Italian American National Foundation, of which Del Raso is a past president, this year gave the Hills its One America award, previously bestowed on an eclectic group — boxer Muhammad Ali, President George H.W. Bush, actor Christopher Reeve — citing the Seguso partnership.

“We had to bring their business elements up to modern standards — how it’s projected in the market,” Hill said. “I gave my wife the job of turning this into a world brand. Like Lalique,” the French firm that has expanded beyond heavy leaded-glass pieces to room decorations, perfumes, and other branded goods.

“The Venetian people invented glass, but they almost never learned to build themselves into a brand,” he added. “Shirley took the investment in their brand and turned touring their furnace, from a visit to a manufacturing facility, to a tour where you learn the history of glass. It wasn’t a business decision; it was a fun decision.”

The business, which expects to be profitable this year, is about half custom lighting fixtures, half art glass. The company also makes “simple stemware and giftware” glasses that sell for hundreds of dollars for “clients that are passionate but cannot afford thousands,” Pierpaolo Seguso told me.

With Hill backing, Seguso has sponsored events at high-end venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Financial Times’ luxury-living section ran a story, noting that other Murano studios are also taking on Italian and foreign business partners. In May, Seguso opened an exhibit of works by the brothers’ father — “Song of Glass by Giampaolo Seguso” — at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., further exposing the brand.

 

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