As a young boy from the small town of Salisbury, NC, Ralph Edwards, Jr. did not own a passport, a traveler’s check, or a camera, let alone know how to speak Italian. “I didn’t even know where Italy was on a map,” joked Edwards. Luckily, he was able to collect those items – Clif Anderson of the ISE Department loaned Edwards his Leica camera – before he boarded his first jet plane headed for Ivrea, Italy and a summer that would change his life forever.
“Actually, I chose that experience because Anderson called me into his office one day and asked if I would like to go to Ivrea, Italy for the summer,” recalled Edwards. “He wanted me to ‘work’ in the Olivetti Factory alongside some of his consulting associates.” Since his other option was working on a mosquito spraying truck in Salisbury, he leaped at the idea. “His only rule was that I enjoy myself and write an article for ‘The Technician’ when I returned,” said Edwards. “Little did I know all that would happen and more.”
As it turned out, Edwards loved photography, strange and interesting places, meeting new people, and he actually enjoyed struggling to learn a new language and culture. His love of Italy, travel, and new experiences lingers to this day. “I am sure they contributed to my success in building relations with international firms and individuals in my real estate career,” explained Edwards. “Unfortunately, the language skills didn’t stick as well as the hunger for adventure and Italian food.”
His summer days consisted of morning meetings with executives and workers. Olivetti was the leading typewriter company in the world at the time. They were well-recognized for the sleek beauty and style of their elegant machines. The chief engineers, who were friends of Clif Anderson, took Edwards under their wing and exposed him to the latest designs for their new products. “One of these products was a revolutionary product they called a computer,” recalled Edwards. “This was of course before IBM took full charge of that market and left many others in the dust – including Olivetti.”
Lunch was always a treat as it often included time with one of the executives over a fine Italian pasta and anchovies in his home, the Albergo Dora. The hotel perched on the banks of the River Dora. Ivrea itself was a small town in the foothills of the Alps about the same size as Salisbury. It was a typical “company town” as most of the people in the town depended on the company for their career and even retirement.
The afternoons were full of guided tours of many manufacturing plants in the industrial belt of Italy as well as the corporate facilities dedicated for use by employees. In fact, Edwards was quick to realize the extent that the company cared for its employees. Olivetti was known around the world for its progressive treatment of its workers that included everything from meals, schools, and daycare to full medical services performed by company doctors and nurses.
More pasta followed at dinner either with company executives in their homes or with his new Italian friends in town. On the weekends, Edwards loved to travel to Milan and to agricultural fairs. One particularly memorable visit was to the vineyards of a friend whose uncle owned a family winery nestled in the mountains around Ivrea. “It was all in the interest in studying the fine art of making my favorite Chianti, of course,” promised Edwards.
After two months of this rigorous study and activity, they released him to travel Italy on his own with full confidence that he could survive with limited Italian skills and a full pocketbook of his earnings – 16,000 Lira per week or a whopping $16. “This was a real eye-opener as it was my first visit to the art and culture of Rome,” recalled Edwards. “I ate it up.”
To this day, he attributes many of his business successes to the relationships that he nurtured in England, Germany, Australia, and Italy. One of my favorite business relationships was with a bona fide Italian Duke. “That opportunity would not have been possible, I am sure, had I not shared a love of his native country which grew from my study abroad experience,” said Edwards.
“This should give you a glimpse into why my wife Ree and I sponsor an international immersion program for students at NC State,” said Edwards. “Often, as in my case, they may enjoy a little nudge of encouragement and some help with their expenses. One of our favorite events of the school year is to have dinner with the students we have helped and have them share with us and with each other their own unique experiences.”