How to do business like the Mafia


Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano arrives at a police station in Palermo. Photograph: Reuters

The letters of jailed Cosa Nostra boss Bernardo Provenzano are full of insights into his leadership style. The result could be a how-to manual for company directors. Clare Longrigg opens the mafiosi’s management handbook

They’re violent, they’re ruthless, they have caused misery to many, but you can’t fault their business sense: mafia bosses know how to make a profit. Its practices may be largely illegal, but Cosa Nostra is not as retrograde, or conservative, as it has often been portrayed. Its raison d’etre is profit. Like any business, it is pragmatic and constantly changing to exploit new opportunities.

Big business has learned how to sell itself to the public, with television shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den granting us a view of harsh but compellingly competitive environments. Businessmen such as Sir Alan Sugar, Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones have become unlikely media personalities. But the mafia has been using these methods for years.

When Bernardo Provenzano took over the organisation in the mid-90s, he inherited a depleted and demoralised workforce, who had scuppered their own access to politics and industry. The bombs that killed anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino had created a PR disaster and a law enforcement backlash. Hundreds of mafiosi were in prison, and many of them were so disillusioned with the organisation that they were telling the authorities everything they knew.

Magistrates and mafiosi agree: Provenzano was the charismatic force who revived the fortunes of Cosa Nostra. It has been said of Provenzano, as of so many mafia entrepreneurs, that had he turned his talents and resources to legitimate business, he would have been extremely successful. Fortunately, the mafia’s particular modus operandi – the use or threat of violence to create monopolies and price-fixing cartels – is not part of general business practice. But his “System” turned around a failing organisation with far-sighted tactics worthy of any business impresario. The fact that he wrote his reforms by letter means that we have what amounts to seven rules for running a successful business.

Rule 1: Submersion

When a company is failing, the first step is to take it below the radar. You want to lose that cursed epithet “troubled” as quickly as possible, even if it means disappearing from the business pages.”It’s the sensible thing to do – you bury your mistakes and get on with it,” says Peter Wallis (known as Peter York in his other guise, as a social commentator), management consultant at SRU Ltd. You also want to buy shareholders’ patience and convince them to hold their nerve and trust you.

“Our aim was to make Cosa Nostra invisible, giving us time to regroup,” recalled Provenzano’s lieutenant, Nino Giuffrè, who collaborated shortly after his arrest in 2002. After a series of power struggles that had left many dead, businessmen were understandably reluctant to return calls. Mafiosi were instructed to avoid any activity that would attract publicity. If a factory owner refused to pay protection, no one was to set fire to the machinery or blow up the trucks. Peaceful persuasion was the only way.

By contrast with the old-style system of shoot first and ask questions later, any hostile action would have to be thoroughly assessed for potential PR damage. “It was essential to weigh up whether a person could do more damage dead or alive,” revealed Giuffrè.

Announcing his system, Provenzano warned that recovery would take time: members might have to wait between five and seven years before they were making profits again. Rebuilding links with business and politicians could only be done out of the glare of publicity. In relative obscurity, Cosa Nostra would be repositioned to shake off its parasitic image and become part of the industrial and political institutions.

Rule 2: Mediation

“Be calm, clear, correct and consistent, turn any negative experiences to account, don’t dismiss everything people tell you, or believe everything you’re told. Always try to discover the truth before you speak, and remember that, to make your judgment, it’s never enough to have just one source of information.”

This letter has been described as “a manifesto of Cosa Nostra under Bernardo Provenzano”. After a decade of unspeakable violence under the previous leader, Totò Riina, Provenzano changed the culture of Cosa Nostra by instructing his men in the art of negotiation and the importance of dialogue.

Provenzano was decisive, and on occasion demanded swift and direct answers to his questions, but he could be a ditherer when it suited him. Playing for time, he encouraged his men to negotiate agreements between them. If that failed, Provenzano was at his typewriter night and day, offering his wisdom and experience (and just occasionally, a little double-dealing) to resolve disputes.

Like any company director, who carefully crafts his or her media persona, Provenzano didn’t want to come across as a tyrant, he wanted to be a “kindly dictator”. He coordinated the activities of different and competing groups, without imposing his will. He was the uncontested boss, but he gave the impression that his decisions were reached after long consultation.

Rule 3: Consensus

Provenzano answered letters from every level of society about job vacancies, exam results, local health and hospital administration. Like the charity work carried out by major corporations today, Provenzano was clear: the mafia must present itself as a positive element of society. The boss had to appear as a beneficent figure, an uncle whose advice and consent was sought on all matters – business and personal. He understood that persuading the people they need you is a far more effective way of promoting your business than imposition and violence.

“Let me know whatever [the people] need,” he wrote to his adviser, “they must expect nothing but good from us.”

One key step in the organisation’s recovery was recapturing the popular consensus. The mafia has always relied on the obedience (goodwill might be putting it too strongly) of the community. In the business of selling protection, social control is essential: if your “clients” unite and rebel, you’re in trouble.