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Highway Hawk

Motorbike Distribution Franchise

James Sebastian Steele has lived in Italy for 35 years and in that time has set up several successful companies. Here BEV talks exclusively to this multi talented businessman.

From a marketing background in the UK, Steele moved to Milan in 1975 to work for Lego Italy and then the World Gold Council. He now owns an agriturismo business Contrada Durano, located in the foothills of the Appenines near Smerillo, Ascoli Piceno in the region of Le Marche.

It was while attending a trade fair in Italy in 1999 to help out an old business contact that Steele first had the idea for his distribution business. Roped in to help with translation and interpretation at a motorcycle trade fair in Milan, Steele was inundated with requests from Italian dealers who had been desperate to do business with the Dutch company he was assisting, but who had been put off by the language difficulties. “There were all those people who wanted to buy but couldn’t,” he says. “It’s a niche market, but a very active one.”

The Dutch company, Highway Hawk, turned to Steel for advice. It was clear they needed a set up in Italy but who could organise it? “I said I would do it,” he recalls, “and that was that really.”

Steele immediately started looking into the best way to invest in the business and called in the professionals to advise him. “This kind of business in Italy, dealing with an overseas supplier and importing from Europe can be a minefield. At first, it looked as if the most logical thing would be to do what some others had tried, which was to set up a warehouse in Italy, maybe even several warehouses, and then serve the orders from Italian dealers from there.” Steele soon realised that this was a clumsy and inefficient way of doing business. To confirm his gut feeling that there was a better option, he called in the services of a tributista. “My best piece of advice for anyone thinking of investing in Italy, especially in a business that deals internationally, is to pay for a day’s consultancy with a tributista. It may cost you up to €100 an hour, but the advice they will give you pays for itself many times over.”

And what is a tributista? They are fiscal lawyers who are experts on the nuances of the Italian business system. Super accountants if you like, who often know more about the law than the people at the tax office. Steele refers to them as “The blade runners of business law. They will say: ‘This is what you have to do, you set up your business like this, you pay this much here, you have nothing to pay here’ and so on. Their job is to interpret the law and they will do so impartially.”

He adds another piece of advice. “Even if I was setting up a business in the middle of the countryside or in the back of beyond, I would still choose a tributista in a big city like Milan and book him for the day. These people are the crème de la crème and it is worth getting the best. They are the ones who work in the city. It will be well worth it believe me!”

Where do you find these miracle workers? “If you are considering investing in Italy then you will already know Italian business people in your own country. In London for example you may go to an Italian club or restaurant or have dealings with an Italian company. Ask them for their recommendations and preferably an introduction. Business in Italy always goes better via personal introductions.”

Steele’s tributista confirmed his belief that he was best to cut out the middle man and set up as a sole trader, dealing directly with the Netherlands. “We hold no stock at all in Italy,” he says. “The goods are ordered directly from Holland and the customer receives the goods and the invoice via UPS, usually within a couple of days.”

He now has a network of about 500 dealerships throughout Italy who do business with him.

“Italians like to know there is a real person, in Italy, at the end of the phone. I see all the dealers at the big trade show in Padova in January, but I will also drop in on them if I am in the area to keep up the human contact that is so important here.”

James Sebastian Steele can be reached on

Contrada Durano:

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