In Ticino, fiduciary firms get involved in fashion, commodity trading and hidden cash flows
Federico Franchini, 5. October 2021
19 Via Cantonale: an anonymous building located on the corner of a busy street leading to the centre of Lugano. This address hosts 163 companies (362 if we also include those which have been delisted) and leads to the case of the hidden funds belonging to the Italian party the Northern League. This was because a fiduciary office based there – Dreieck – managed the company in the Bahamas that controlled the Panamanian company to which Fidirev (the fiduciary office of the Fidinam group in Italy) had sent the allegedly hidden money. Dreieck means “triangle” in German and, for a company which operates in offshore domiciliation, its name already crops up all over the place.
But it’s not the only interesting fiduciary company based at this address. The building also houses the offices of Lardi & Partners SA, a company owned by Adelio Lardi. His name is well known in Ticino. He is considered the creator of the tax system for Kering, the French fashion multinational, which transferred for years billions of euros in profits to Ticino in order to benefit from its generous tax arrangements. In 2012, nearly 70% of the group’s profits were generated there, as revealed by a survey conducted by Public Eye. On paper, the productivity rate of the 600 Swiss employees was impressive. Without even touching a sewing machine, each person generated on average 117 times more profit than their colleagues based in other countries. It was Lardi who established Gucci SA in Ticino, which then became Luxury Goods International SA (LGI), controlled until 2019 by Kering Luxembourg (now Kering Holland NV). LGI is the company at the heart of this tax case, which cost Kering in Italy a record fine of EUR 1.25 billion two years ago.
Adelio Lardi has always been a member of LGI’s board of directors, based in the village of Cadempino, where the financial intermediary resides. But that’s not all. Thanks to the Gucci model, Lardi has managed several companies in the Kering Group, such as Bottega Veneta, as well as other international fashion brands that have established themselves in Ticino, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Tom Ford and Loro Piana. Some of these brands were based at 19 Via Cantonale. This is the case of Macedonio International (now in liquidation at another address), which managed the Italian-Japanese shoe brand Ishigawa. The latter had EUR 3.5 million confiscated in Italy for alleged tax fraud.
Adelio Lardi, who has sat on the board in 93 Ticino companies, is also a member of the board of directors of DXT Commodities (domiciled at another address), a trading company (energy and gas) currently considered the largest company in Ticino, posting profits of EUR 112 million in 2020. Operating in Lugano, DXT Commodities is controlled by a Luxembourg holding company which, through a chain of companies in the Grand Duchy, is ultimately owned by a trust based in Liechtenstein.
DXT Commodities appears to be in the hands of Italy’s Bruno Bolfo, the man who created the Duferco Group, world leader in steel trading. This company is controlled by a holding company in Luxembourg (majority-owned by the Chinese Hebsteel; with Bolfo holding a minority of shares), but it operates from Lugano. From 1996 to 1998, Duferco had its headquarters at 19 Via Cantonale and Adelio Lardi was a member of its board of directors from 1996 to 2008. When Duferco was founded in 1982 in Ticino, Bruno Bolfo was not with the company. It was Elio Borradori, standing in front of the notary, who was to become famous for having been Saddam Hussein’s administrator.
When, one year later, in 1983, the first Duferco Holding entity was created in Luxembourg, the modus operandi used was the same: control was entrusted to Laconfida de Vaduz, a company in the Borradori firm from which many financial secrets passed, which will remain more or less hidden, linked to the fiduciary structure in Lugano. And where is Laconfida based nowadays? At 19 Via Cantonale, of course.
Methodology: Three methods for dealing with a sensitive subject in Switzerland
One thing must be said straight away: our data remains a screenshot of the corporate structure at a given time T. It reflects the economic structure of a given canton at the time we extracted the data from Zefix.ch. This delve into the central index of all the company names in Switzerland enabled us to perform a first mapping of the addresses featuring the most companies and those containing the most company names with c/o in them.
So we have identified tens of thousands of companies, from which the companies in liquidation must be removed. The large commercial centres are logically home to more than a hundred companies. Not to mention hospitals and clinics where practitioners register their centre of activity. The development of co-working spaces is also encouraging certain companies to group together at a single, identical address. We have therefore discounted these from the analysis.
The various commercial registers have also enabled us, through a technique of extracting digital data known as “scraping”, to establish a ranking in terms of the individuals and firms administering the most companies by canton.
We then had to look at the substance of these companies: their number of employees in full-time equivalent (FTE) posts. Anonymised data (without company names) is publicly available on the website of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). It provides a reference for the companies – and the number of employees – based on their geographical coordinates. However, results for companies with less than four employees are not detailed, and the administration has again taken care to systematically replace the last two digits of the geolocation data to complicate the matter of identifying the companies. “Number of employees” seems to be regarded as highly sensitive data in Switzerland.
In order to obtain the unabridged data for 2018 (the latest statistics available at the time of the research), we had to sign a data protection agreement designed to limit our ability to disseminate too accurate results or for each individual company, or to reveal the identity of companies with fewer than four employees. It was therefore this third database which enabled us to calculate an average ratio of full-time equivalents per address. We used it to geolocate addresses via the Google Geocoding geolocation API. The address file has been supplemented by searches on Google Maps, visits to the different avenues and floors in the buildings themselves, along with searches through the directory search.ch. Having no phone number may be a tell-tale sign that the company doesn’t have a substantial presence.
When asked about the reasons for the confidentiality surrounding these statistics, the FSO merely reminds us that it “applies the legislation in force relating to data protection”, and refers us to a relevant web page.