(Bloomberg) -- If you got a Covid or flu shot this winter, the vaccine may well have come out of a vial made by Stevanato Group SpA, one of just a handful of Italian firms listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

All it took to get there was “a 30-year startup phase,” said Franco Stevanato, the company’s frugal, self-effacing executive chairman, who opens the door himself to greet reporters visiting Stevanato Group’s offices in Milan. 

But now, the 75-year-old firm that started out making bottles and containers in the glassmaking hub around Venice is preparing for an even bigger leap, into the global top five producers of drug-injecting devices.

A new wave of biologics and the success of weight-loss and diabetes treatments is set to push demand for the firm’s products, the chairman said, putting a leadership position in the company’s sights.

Stevanato already produces 11 billion pieces annually at 19 sites in countries such as the US, China, Brazil and Italy, mainly vials, cartridges, pre-filled syringes, pen-injectors and auto-injectors, as well as sophisticated, on-body delivery systems.

It all started with innovations dreamed up by founder Giovanni Stevanato, a carpenter by trade with “a talent for invention,” the chairman said, pointing to his grandfather’s ideas for automation that radically cut delivery times. 

That provided the impetus for Franco’s father Sergio, now 81, to keep expanding through acquisitions as the firm progressively moved away from containers for the food and fragrance sectors toward the more lucrative pharma industry.

It’s a striking transformation for a company owned by a humble family like the Stevanatos, who still live clustered around the firm’s headquarters in Piombino Dese, a small town some 20 miles from Venice that’s better known for Renaissance villas than for corporate buzz.

Franco Stevanato, a billionaire who drives a Volkswagen, eschews designer clothes and says he sometimes rides in the economy section on trains to hang out with students, heads a family that’s worth around $7 billion — a rarefied world in Italy that’s more famously populated by the likes of the Agnellis and Berlusconis.

And while the low-key approach may be a matter of personal choice for the soft-spoken executive who spends weekends ferrying his four kids to local sports competitions, it also reflects what he says is a family obsession: keeping debt in check. 

Wall Street

As if to underscore, the chairman ticks off his firm’s main reasons for listing in the US back in 2021: “to become visible by being close to clients shortening their supply chains, and to raise resources to build plants in the US — while keeping our debt sustainable,” he said. 

That means a maximum level of two times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, Stevanato said. The firm’s debt stood at €324 million ($350 million) at the end of last year.

The drive to keep debt down dates back to the 1980s, when Stevanato Group was on the brink of default after a cornerstone client dropped the firm as a supplier and switched to plastic containers. 

The subsequent period took its toll on the family, and even after the successful initial public offering, Stevanato recalls his father saying, “Wall Street is all well and good, but are our workers safe?” 

That meshes with the company’s incremental approach to the markets. “We’ve been criticized for our free float,” Stevanato said, with the figure currently at 16%. “But we prefer to be prudent, taking one step at the time.” 

One of those steps came in late March, as the company and the family holding sold some 14 million shares to raise about $380 million, bringing their controlling stake down to around 74% — and putting the Stevanatos’ overall fortune at about $7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Stevanato Group reported revenue of €1.1 billion last year, a 10% rise compared to the year before, with gross profit margin slightly down to 31% from 33% in 2022. The firm sees a “floor” level of low double-digit revenue growth through 2027, the chairman said. 

Despite a bumpy share price performance this year — though the stock is still well above its $21 IPO price — Stevanato says he wants to progressively sell packets of shares on the market to fund expansion and bolt-on acquisitions. 

That means pouncing on opportunities in the supply chain for biopharmaceutical injectables, including biologic drugs, insulin, vaccines and so-called GLP-1s, the chairman said. 

After Franco Stevanato, 50, wraps up the interview on a Friday afternoon in Milan, he can be seen striding across the company parking lot toward his car — no reserved spot near the entrance for the chairman. 

With the three-hour drive back to Piombino Dese ahead of him, the executive says he’s eager to get on the road and return to his family compound. Brother Marco, 51, who runs the family office, and father Sergio are among the Stevanatos who’ll be waiting. But they won’t talk business during the weekend, he says. “We’ll all just have a big barbecue together.”


--With assistance from Ben Stupples and Deirdre Hipwell.

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