Back in 1987, Isora Rustignoli, then 36 and with no more than an elementary school education, went to work for Formula Servizi Società Cooperativa as a cleaning woman. The company, based in Forlì in northeastern Italy, was a co-op, and so Rustignoli paid in €100 for a small equity stake. Today she and 681 co-workers own one of Italy's fastest-growing companies -- and she has worked her way up to a desk job and a seat on the company's board of directors. "This company gives an opportunity to anyone who wants to work hard," she says.
One of the elements behind the fast growth of Formula Servizi, which mainly provides cleaning services, is its cooperative ownership structure. Out of a total of 1,291 employees as of the end of last year -- 87% of them women -- more than half are part-owners of the company and are invited to participate in its democratic decision-making process, voting on strategy and investment decisions. "This definitely helps motivate workers," says Chairman Graziano Rinaldini, who joined the company's human resources department in 1992.
Beyond its profitable cleaning business, Formula Servizi has branched out into logistics services, museum surveillance, industrial catering, street cleaning, and management of parks and public gardens. It also has a joint venture with a nonprofit organization that finds jobs for the handicapped, former prisoners, and people living on the street. And Rinaldini has gotten Formula Servizi's employees involved in charitable and environmental projects, such as building a school in Bosnia and driving aid there in Formula Servizi trucks, using organic fuels, and developing new cleaning systems with nonchemical bacteria controls and low water usage. "Our chairman is always full of ideas," notes Rustignoli.
Formula Servizi, founded in 1975 as a nine-woman cleaning co-op, has seen its revenue grow steadily in the last several years, reaching €27.8 million at the end of 2003, while profits grew from €855,000 in 2000 to €3.4 million last year. Chairman Rinaldini says the key to the co-op's success lies in the quality of its cleaning services, which in turn lies in the effort and energy individual workers put in. "Cleaning is one of the humblest jobs there is," says Rinaldini. "If we enrich it by giving it a sort of professionalism, with products and processes that are professional, then our people feel like professionals. This is the secret to our growth."