When Siemens opened its first Italian company on January 1, 1899, in Milan, it launched one of the longest partnerships in its history. From the construction of power plants and installation of modern telecommunication networks to latest digitalization solutions – Siemens has been making significant contributions toward the nation’s progress for more than 120 years.
Beginnings in southern Europe – Entering the market through electric power engineering
As early as 1855 – just eight years after Siemens & Halske (S&H) was founded in Berlin – the young German company began seeking its first business relations with Italy. As the 1870s drew to a close, it completed its first projects – such as the trial electric lighting for several streets in Rome. Werner von Siemens built further on these emergent business connections. Finally, on January 1, 1899, Siemens’ Italian subsidiary Società Italiana Siemens per Impianti Elettrici was founded in Milan. Within just a year, the company had several branch offices in various Italian cities.
This network enabled Siemens to expand simultaneously in both the north and the south of the country. Shortly after the subsidiary was founded, it built its first electric power plants in Perugia and Pisa, and hydroelectric plants in Vizzola. Not long after that, it began producing trams. So it was “heavy-current” technology most of all – as power engineering was called in those days – that enabled the Berlin company to gain an early foothold in Italy.
In 1903, Società Italiana Siemens and Società Anonima Italiana Schuckert & Co. merged to form Società Italiana di Elettricitá Siemens-Schuckert (SIE), inaugurating an especially successful run of business in the first few decades of the 20th century. Besides furnishing electrical equipment for a variety of rail cars, the most important projects from this period included the 1910 completion of the hydroelectric plant on the Stura di Viù River – one of the world’s first pumped-storage plants – and providing electrical systems for the Palace of Justice and the new Mint in Rome, along with the structures at the International Exhibition there.
Tough competition – Siemens also operates in Italian communications engineering
Early 20th-century Italy was also a promising market for Siemens in communications engineering, known in the day as “light-current” engineering. Before World War I, the company landed several major orders to install public telephone systems. As early as 1900, S&H’s presentation of the latest telecommunications developments at the Paris World Exposition had won it a reputation as an attractive technology partner for the Italian telephone business. Siemens delivered the equipment for the new telephone switching offices in Venice, Fermo, Cittadella and Este.
But competition in this line was very tough. In those days companies from the United States (especially Western Electric) held a considerable lead over Siemens in some aspects of telecommunications, and had achieved greater technological advances. Nevertheless, the Berlin company faced up to the challenge. When it installed its first dialed telephone office – i.e., one with automated call switching – in Munich in 1909, Siemens & Halske showed it was able to hold its own on the international market at last.
Another major contributor to its success in this competition was a specially installed promotional office at Palazzo Chigi in Rome – now, since 1961, the building that houses the offices of the Italian Prime Minister. S&H presented its latest dialing equipment in this historic Renaissance palace – and thus won major projects from Italy’s state telephone administration. By 1912 the company had already installed its first telephone switching offices in Rome and Genoa.
The outbreak of World War II disrupted work on these offices, and Siemens in Italy closed out the 1914 year with a loss. But the telephone system’s smooth operation was the first step toward later business successes in Italy.
Between the wars – New products for new customers
After the end of World War I, Siemens continued expanding its Italian business. The country’s urgent need for public electric power systems and public transportation, along with the expansion of major industries, offered the German company a very good business environment.
The promise of strong business in the early 1920s encouraged S&H and Siemens-Schuckertwerke to establish a new sales company in Milan, Siemens Società Anonima (SA). That change attracted significant new customers, whose rising demand in turn pushed Siemens’ existing factories to the limits of their capacity. So Siemens SA decided to expand its industrial plants, and then in 1927 to open a new production company, OLAP (Officine Lombarde Apparecchi di Precisione S.A.) in Milan. From now on that company would be responsible for making Siemens products.
All these changes also led to a sharp increase in the Siemens Italia workforce. The Milan operation alone had a total of 713 employees at the end of 1939. To accommodate this substantially larger staff, Siemens Italia also needed a new office building, including storage and workshop space. It engaged German architect Hans Hertlein to prepare the designs. The famous building at Via Fabio Filzi 29 was completed in 1938, and from then on stood as a symbol of Siemens Italia’s success, while at the same time becoming a landmark both in the cityscape and in the history of modern architecture in Milan. Another significant business development came in the early 1940s: the many different companies that Siemens Italia had bought up over the decades were combined into a single large Siemens company, Siemens Società per Azioni (Siemens SpA).
Restructuring and major orders – A broad product range for the Italian market
After World War II ended, many former Siemens local companies were placed under government control in their various countries, or taken over by domestic companies with government assistance. The situation was no different for the Siemens company in Italy in 1950. STET (Società Torinese Esercizi Telefonici) acquired all shares of the former Siemens SpA, but later offered the German company a chance to buy back its former non-telecommunications parts. In 1960 these rejoined Siemens & Halske and Siemens-Schuckertwerke, as Siemens Elettra (SEM). The company had held on to its impressive pre-war headquarters building on Via Fabio Filzi in Milan. Twenty-seven years later, in 1987, Siemens Elettra resumed its former name as Siemens SpA.
The telecommunications segments of Siemens, however, still remained under Italian management after 1960. The new entity, named SIT (Società Italiana Telecomunicazioni Siemens), was later sold to a private Italian company in the early 1980s.
SEM in particular continued to expand in the 1960s and 1970s, doing a very profitable business in mass-produced goods. The company was able to standardize low-voltage switchgear and controls at SA FIAT, Italy’s biggest buyer of machinery, and thus made a national production source available to the entire Italian machine tool industry.
Orders came from a wide variety of institutions during the postwar years. One of the biggest Italian customers was ENEL (Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica), Europe’s second-largest electric power utility, for whom Siemens made telemetering systems with process computers.
Siemens kept busy from the late 1960s to the end of the century with extensive lighting projects for public spaces. To take just one example, in 1968 SEM installed the entire lighting system at the basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padua, bringing special luminance to one of Italy’s most famous and most heavily visited sanctuaries.
Another project that made Siemens famous in Italy was installing the floodlight systems at the stadiums in Milan, Florence, Verona and Bari for the 1990 Football World Cup. In that competition, the German national team played here and ultimately scored a historic triumph: only a year after German reunification, the unified team won the World Cup.
Onward to the digital era – Siemens Italy enters the new millennium
Digitalization and sustainability: business mainstays that will be definitive in the new millennium for Siemens in Italy as well. One forward-looking project was the digital equipment that Siemens Business Services delivered to the Italian national police force in 2003. This was the biggest mobile emergency calling system in the country – more than 8,000 Carabinieri vehicles in 113 cities were equipped with the latest Siemens call center technology, which also included GPS. The German company has also been a leader in renewable “green” energy technology in Italy, with orders to produce and install solar power equipment.
In 2010 Siemens designed new solar receivers for the city of Massa Martana, and that same year the company joined forces with Statkraft, Europe’s largest producer of renewable energy, to build additional solar power installations in Central Italy – the biggest photovoltaic master agreement in Europe so far.
For Expo 2015 in Milan, Siemens formed a strategic partnership with the ENEL energy group to develop an intelligent microgrid that would supply the event with electricity. Siemens’ “Smart Grid” software made it possible to monitor and optimize power consumption throughout the exposition grounds, not just from monitors in the control room, but from anywhere via smartphone. The controls also included lighting and HVAC systems for the various countries’ pavilions. Siemens adorned the fairgrounds with international art as well: Piazza Italia, the exhibition’s midway,
boasted four monumental sculptures that Siemens had commissioned from the Daniel Libeskind architectural studio.
Casa Siemens – An innovative new headquarters building
Welcome to the future! March 22, 2018, a mere 18 months after the cornerstone was laid, saw the festive opening of Casa Siemens, the new Siemens Italia headquarters in Milan. The Italian staff moved from the old Siemens headquarters, dating from the 1990s, to the new site that same day. The new structure on a modern campus is surrounded by extensive green space, and meets high standards for sustainability – a given at Siemens Building Technologies. Certification to the international LEED GOLD Standard bears clear witness to that.
The building’s cost-effective, energy-efficient design is obvious in features like a reduction of nearly 50 percent in electric power consumption. The new level is achieved with some 400 LED lighting fixtures that yield an immense savings over conventional lighting.
“If you want to know how people at Siemens will be working in the future, take a look at Milan,” says Zsolt Sluitner, Head of Siemens Real Estate. Because in addition to the innovative green headquarters, the 84,000-square-meter site also gives a lift to the entire surrounding district of Milan. The new complex includes not just a large employee parking facility, but a soccer field and a new park, open to the public, with 400 trees.