Giustino Orazi, 30, couldn't have chosen a worse time to set up his printed-circuit board company, El.Man, in Italy's mountainous Abruzzi region. When El.Man started production in 1991, the market was overflowing with printed circuits. It wasn't easy for Orazi and his two partners to convince the Young Entrepreneurs Committee, a state-run venture-capital outfit, that what had been a great idea back in 1987 was still valid.
The committee, which turns down 70% of the applications it gets, still hadn't approved $2.5 million in low-interest loans. But Orazi and his two partners, Monica D'Annuntis and Amadio Angelini, had already forked out $150,000 and persuaded their parents--schoolteachers and shop owners--to underwrite a $1.5 million bank loan.
"At one point, we were $1 million in the red," says Orazi, an engineering grad. "Everyone was telling us to abandon our project." The committee's grant finally came through, and El.Man posted $2.3 million in sales in its first two years of life. This year, it expects to reach $8 million.
TWICE AS FAST. But El.Man's success doesn't derive just from state money. The company also delivers custom-made products at twice the speed of its competitors. Unlike big manufacturers, El.Man accepts orders for small quantities. Its flexibility has landed such customers as Alcatel Alsthom and Texas Instruments Inc. And when orders pile up, its 50 employees, all in their mid-20s, work nights and weekends, a rare practice for Italy.
Can such a small outfit survive? In effect, El.Man will have to rely on self-financing to grow. "We can't just be entrepreneurs. We also have to be our own banks," says Orazi. So far, he's proving a good risk.