The man responsible for most of this is Marco Volpato, who gave up a promising career in advanced mathematics and computer science to drive one of Italy’s leading family companies to one of the top spots in polyurethane machinery.
That story was recognised last year by Germany’s foamed plastics association (FSK), which presented Marco Volpato with a medal of honour in September 2015.
Cannon was founded in 1962 by Volpato’s father Leonardo, who originally made equipment for spray polyester systems.
As Volpato explained, “My father was on a business trip in France and saw a Drostholm machine, working. He saw the foam come up and he was fascinated. Then he decided that he needed to concentrate on this technology.”
Volpato senior was joined by Carlo Fiorentini in 1965 and together they started making polyurethane machinery. “It is a very challenging and beautiful field.”
For the first nine years of its life, Cannon produced low-pressure machinery because the original Bayer-Hennecke patent, which covered the idea of mixing the energy, was still valid.
However, as the end of the patent’s life drew near, the small Cannon company, with Carlo Fiorentini, started considering new ways to produce high-pressure machinery.
This did not interest young Marco Volpato, “I graduated in applied mathematics, and wrote a thesis about game theory, developing a corollary of J. Nash’s theorem” he said.
Game theory holds the key
“Game theory, according to these principles”, he explains, “studies the way that systems made up of competing units come into equilibrium, and how the strategies of different units change that equilibrium”.
“Imagine,” he said, “when you change the variables in a game where each player is pursuing their own strategy to try and win, although each tries to dominate or get to a certain point, there is often no overall winner, finally there is an area of equilibrium with no one winner.”
Game theory applies even if the numbers of players is very large and systems are complex. This means it finds application in areas from weather forecasting to chemistry and the flow of streams of liquids.
“From this experience I got a passion to look at strategy, strategy, strategy. We ask ourselves: ’where do we have to go?’; ‘what are the variables?’; ‘what about the market?’; ‘what about the competitors?’; ‘what about the technology?’; ‘what about raw materials suppliers?’ And from that,” he said, “we try to find the winning strategy.”
“We like complex scenarios”
After completing his thesis, Volpato was offered the chance to study language mathematics in Russia, but chose to stay in Italy and study cybernetics before working for Honeywell developing models of applications for the first computers. While he was doing this Volpato also took an MBA from Bocconi, Milan, with additional specialisations at Harvard University and MIT in the US.
Then, he explained, my father died suddenly, with no warning in 1973.
“I took a good nine months to decide what to do because I was already inside an international business structure. Finally the great motivation was just to come here and grow a great project, polyurethane.”
Cannon was small at the time, Volpato said. “My father spent the second part of his life inventing things and so the motivation was to pick up his last invention and make it a success.”
“I say this with humbleness and logic. If you really want to succeed, you have to define what it means and do a lot of things. It means first of all, to generate really great value; more than the others. You can always do better than the others, and better than yourself.”
“At the time I was 29 and now I’m 70. And I’m still here,” he said.
The landmark came in 1988, after the settlement of the patent battle with Krauss Maffei, over the FPL mixing head.
A bruising encounter
“This big fight, which started in 1979 and lasted until 1986,” saw 23 separate patent disputes brought by both companies, Volpato said.