Only a few months ago, the Government of Catalonia paid homage to Antoni Subirà when it celebrated the 25th anniversary of the cluster policies he pioneered. Now he has sadly passed away and it is time to reflect on the importance of his leadership and the impact it has had in Catalonia and beyond. Minister Subirà was one of the pioneers in applying cluster-based economic development policies, a new approach pioneered in Professor Michael Porter’s book “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” in 1990. When Subirà was appointed minister of Industry, he received a manuscript of the book from IESE Business School colleague Professor Eduard Ballarin, Subirà became immediately interested; and began deploying the ideas even as the book was being published. Catalonia’s work in clusters was soon highlighted as an example in the book “On Competition” (1998), and case studies on Catalonia were taught at Harvard Business School. Twenty years later Catalonia’s policies had been recognized worldwide, and Catalonia became a center of global cluster institutions, like the TCI Network and the European Foundation for Cluster Excellence, both chaired and nurtured by Subirà.
A cluster policy that worked
Most importantly, the model worked. When the French government launched its cluster policy, Subira’s approach was credited as having doubled the Catalan GDP per capita in 10 years. Subirà never talked too much about clusters during his tenure, concerned that if he drew attention to the cluster initiatives in process, they would become an object of “political desire” and calls for subsidy by other companies. Instead, Subirà talked about larger goals like “the internationalization of the Catalan firms” or “raising quality levels to participate in global value chains”. He implemented cluster policy in his usual down-to-earth fashion, working closely with the region’s entrepreneurs, micro-cluster by micro-cluster, until covering all of Catalonia’s economy.
Minister Subira’s origins in the textile industry in Mataro gave him a deep understanding of the reality of local companies and what was needed to move them to the next level. He was never attracted to the industrial policy fad of picking “winning sectors”. Instead he supported all the sectors present in Catalonia. When few saw a future for the textile or jewelry industry in its traditional form, he helped stimulate innovations that led to some of Catalonia’s most important companies like Mango, Desigual and Tous. In the leather tanning cluster in Igualada, which in a Harvard case study of 1995 was called the “ugly duckling” of industries due to its environmental impact, Subirà helped transform the sector, in two decades, to an environmental leader which supplies the most sophisticated luxury brands.
Antoni Subirà didn’t have EU subsidies or tax incentives to offer, but helped build anchor assets in the region such as: technology centers, testing facilities and shared services. Building the quality of the cluster environment and not giving subsidies or a tax breaks. These assets have created lower costs and great resilience to crises versus competition from other regions.
Sharing his experience
Antoni Subirà’s contribution did not stop when he stepped down as Minister in 2003. He returned to his professorship at IESE Business School, and became an international thought leader. His open character and genuine interest in every entrepreneur and region he encountered, ranged from working with Finland’s former Prime Minister, Esko Aho, on European cluster policies, to assisting the local authorities in Cauca (Colombia) on how to develop local artisanal industries in displaced indigenous communities. Whether it was the CEO of a large German car manufacturer or a small leather tanner, Subirà had a gift in establishing dialog with entrepreneurs on opportunities, not only on problems, and distancing economic development from politics. His legacy will live on the impact he has had on his native Catalonia, the ideas he has institutionalized and in the many people that he has inspired.