Responsible finance

Ardian and the Celli Group: a vision of sustainable beverage solutions

  • 14 December 2020

  • Sustainability, Buyout

Reading time: 9 minutes

There’s no doubt that viewpoints on sustainability are changing. Now more than ever, sustainability is playing a crucial role in investment decision making. One company at the forefront of the revolution is Celli—a leading beverage solutions group that is shaking up the industry by replacing bottles and cans with a new generation of “smart” dispensing systems. Impressed by Celli’s sustainable vision and technological focus, Ardian invested in the Italian group in February 2019 as part of its Sustainable Buyout program, which seeks to encourage sustainability and positive social impact in the companies of tomorrow. We sat down with Mauro Gallavotti, CEO of the Celli Group, and Marco Bellino, Managing Director in the Buyout team at Ardian, to learn more about their shared commitment to sustainability and the roadmap for the future.

Every company has to act within the means at their disposal—and not only companies, each of us on an individual level. And simply saying it’s better for the environment isn’t enough.

Marco Bellino, Managing Director at Ardian Buyout

Could you tell us a bit about Celli’s background and how you came together with Ardian?

Mauro Gallavotti: Celli is an Italian company founded over forty years ago specializing in the design, engineering and manufacturing of dispensing systems for cold beverages—mainly beer, soft drinks and water. Since I joined the group in 2013, the company has gone from 30 million euros in sales up to 130, and from a hundred employees up to six hundred. Throughout this growth, we’ve been driven by the belief that our direct competitor isn’t other manufacturers of dispensing systems, but rather the bottle itself—meaning how people consume beverages and what this implies for the environment. The concept of beverage dispensing offers an alternative to bottles and cans which is far more sustainable. This is even more important in the case of water since the world is hardly facing the issue of its scarcity.
Marco Bellino: Celli came on our radar screen quite early on because we recognized the transformation the company was undergoing. Mauro’s appointment was key to that transformation, bringing his know-how and sense of purpose to the company along with a vision of real partnership with their customers—which is precisely what we look for when we make investments. So, there was a common ground in terms of vision that was important from the very start. As I see it, the company has two main verticals of growth: the first is sustainability, because in many ways this is where the world is going. If you are a driving force for this change, it represents an opportunity and added value for the kind of partnership you want to have with your customers. The second vertical is centered on technology—and, of course, the two are not entirely separate from one another. With this hunger for innovation comes a very solid attachment point for developing a sustainable business model. So, with these two features as the driving force in deepening the partnership with their customers, we recognized a great investment opportunity and a great management team to support over the coming years.

technology has a key role to play in unlocking value for a more sustainable future while improving the immediate benefit your customer gets from your products.

Marco Bellino, Managing Director at Ardian Buyout

One of the things that differentiates Ardian’s Sustainable Buyout vision is its emphasis on companies whose core business activity isn’t solely based on societal change or protecting the environment. Do you believe all companies now have a responsibility to act as changemakers?

M.B.: Every company has to act within the means at their disposal—and not only companies, each of us on an individual level. And simply saying it’s better for the environment isn’t enough. Great orators can give speeches to convince people that their choices of consumption must be driven by the idea of leaving a better world for our children. Whereas if a company is an innovator in its field, it can do its part by using technology as a force for change. And Celli is a very telling example, mirroring one of my own personal beliefs: that technology has a key role to play in unlocking value for a more sustainable future while improving the immediate benefit your customer gets from your products. What Ardian is most proud of in terms of our partnership with Celli is that the company has remained extremely true to its strategy, even during this unique and challenging period. Together, we are holding fast to the vision we created and the strategic value we want to create.

The issue of sustainability is not a fashion or a trend. It’s not greenwashing the activity of the company to tell a positive story; this really is the essence of our company.

Mauro Gallavotti, CEO of the Celli Group
M.G.: The issue of sustainability is not a fashion or a trend. It’s not greenwashing the activity of the company to tell a positive story; this really is the essence of our company. This is one more reason that the partnership with Ardian was such a natural fit since they are a major player with a real commitment to sustainability. The nature of our business model puts us at the top of a growing wave, with a competitive advantage developed over the last five or six years. And we can leverage these advantages and ride that wave as part of Ardian’s portfolio. So, we couldn’t be prouder to be part of the Ardian family.

We are part of a group of companies dedicated to the sustainability of water, with water economy at the top of the agenda, and we are making a significant contribution to these efforts.

Mauro Gallavotti, CEO of the Celli Group

Can you walk us through how sustainability became a major part of Celli’s DNA and how this transformation factored into your partnership?

M.G.: When I joined the company in 2013, we were facing fundamental questions. “What is the idea behind the development of this company? What direction should we take?” Sustainability was central to defining that path, especially when you consider the numbers: 95% of drinking worldwide is through bottles or cans, while drinking water from a refillable bottle at a water cooler is much more sustainable. And there is also the question of carbon footprint in terms of transportation, not to mention waste and plastic in the ocean. Our goal now is to shift towards a more balanced consumption dynamic, which doesn’t mean we are against mineral water. We are part of a group of companies dedicated to the sustainability of water, with water economy at the top of the agenda, and we are making a significant contribution to these efforts.
Our latest project, Acqua Alma Green Building, features high-tech vending machine technology for refillable bottles to be used in condominiums. We are working with contractors in Italy to embed this technology into their new concept of green buildings. Our slogan is “Don’t recycle, refill”, which is of course a bit provocative, but the truth is that refilling does have more of a positive impact than simply recycling. The system includes a smart bottle that can be paired with the mobile app, so when you approach the vending machine, you’re met with a personalized greeting. The app stores your favorite drink settings and overall habits, putting all the data of your consumption and hydration at your fingertips—along with how many trees you saved by using a refillable bottle. This is just one example of the potential of technology and digital solutions. It means digitizing the drinking experience with a great vision of sustainability.
M.B.: As Mauro said, Celli considers its main competitor to be the bottle itself. And over recent years, we have seen viewpoints on sustainability change. The shift of investors starting to monitor companies on a regular basis for how they perform along these criteria was the first element of change. It truly has been an engine in the industry for investors, with these questions becoming critical factors in their decision-making process. For that reason, the industry had to adapt. And, like many other aspects of our industry, what was once perceived as a cost—and for some in the past, an actual threat—is increasingly seen as an opportunity to be proactively pursued.

The crisis compelled us to rethink the calendar, implementing changes we had envisioned over coming years in a span of just six months.

Marco Bellino, Managing Director at Ardian Buyout

How has the COVID-19 pandemic transformed your overall strategy and challenges for the future?

M.B.: We are still measuring the real impact of COVID-19 in the medium term and what the aftereffects will look like eighteen months down the line. Up until now, it hasn’t been a change in strategy as much as an acceleration of the roadmap we defined together in March 2019. The crisis compelled us to rethink the calendar, implementing changes we had envisioned over coming years in a span of just six months.
The roadmap we defined together includes the capitalization of the starting phase of the process and continuation of the strategy that Mauro initiated in 2013. In terms of Celli’s evolution, there is a wealth of technology and innovation that needs to be scaled up for a broader playing field. We are ramping up these efforts and helping Celli becoming a real partner for the largest players in the beverage industry. These are precisely the kinds of partnerships and initiatives we want to support, leveraging Ardian’s global reach and financial resources to help bolster the technology and innovation that sets Celli apart from the competition. 
M.G.: As Marco mentioned, the crisis presented us with an opportunity to innovate and boost certain transformational initiatives that we were already working on. In terms of our overall company approach, this meant digitalizing a major portion of the company. As a business-to-business company, our activities were very much based around exhibitions, personal contacts and face-to-face meetings, whereas now we have shifted to a smart way of working and pushed our digital marketing to new levels. This will have a positive impact on the environment as well because travel will be reduced. There’s no doubt that all this will change the way we work forever.
As for shifting strategy, we are still moving ahead with the roadmap we defined together: we are in a scaling-up phase that involves rolling out our business model country by country, with global accounts and distributors in every region worldwide. As a major global private equity fund, Ardian is playing an essential role in supporting our M&A strategy and helping us develop new relationships in every corner of the globe.