Banca Commerciale Italiana was established in Milan on October 10, 1894 by a consortium of German, Austrian and Swiss Banks. Its first general managers were Otto Joel and Federico Weil, both Germans, and its operational model was the universal bank as existing in Germany . The model mandated that the new bank would select its clientele among the large industrial enterprises, that such relations would be exclusive as ‘Hausbank’ and that the bank would groom its corporate clients until they were ready to become publicly quoted at the Exchange.
BCI has been the bank that most contributed to the Italian economic expansion that took off in the first decades of the 20th century, financing the fledgling new industries of the country with the necessary resources, namely in the most important fields such as steel works, mechanical, energy production, chemical, transportation, textiles, etc.
Since inception, BCI would create and expand its network over the entire country, beginning with the major cities. At the same time, BCI looked over the local boundaries and across the ocean establishing a web of branches and investing in controlling stakes of local banks abroad; such policy soon gave BCI an unchallenged pre-eminent position among its Italian competitors.
In 1910 BCI and Paribas established in Paris the Banque Française et Italienne pour l’Amérique du Sud (Sudameris) which was soon projecting itself all over Latin America, and shortly thereafter BCI opened its branches in London (1911) and New York (1918).
After the end of World War I BCI supported the post-war conversion of the Italian industrial system. During the ‘20s, under the stewardship of Giuseppe Toeplitz, its Chief Executive Officer of Polish descent, BCI became more and more involved with the large Italian industrial concerns as their main lender first, and in some instances as controlling shareholder.
BCI was able to keep a prudent and autonomous position vis-à-vis the fascist regime.
In the same decade BCI continued its expansion abroad, namely in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Egypt.
The great crisis of 1929 shook also BCI as its loans book was heavily populated by large corporations and therefore hardly liquid. In 1931, as the crisis spread to international banking circles, Comit had to look for shelter from the Italian government relinquishing its industrial portfolio of loans and shares to IRI which eventually became the controlling shareholder of Comit (1934).
The new managing directors, Raffaele Mattioli and Michelangelo Facconi, assisted by the young general manager Giovanni Malagodi, underwent a radical reorganisation of the bank, which promoted, among other things, the adoption of an up-to-date accounting system with automated procedures (an absolute first in Italy, at the time), more aggressive and rational marketing policies, more stringent and structured analysis tools to assess periodically the creditworthiness of borrowers as well as their most likely prospects for growth and future ability to service their commitments: the loan documentation that recorded these features became known as ‘ Format Nr 253’.
The Banking Law of 1936 gave to BCI, Banco di Roma and Credito Italiano the sole remit of short-term lending and the rank of ‘banks of national interest’.
The economic research conducted within Comit by a dedicated think-tank effectively produced first-rate knowledge, quite often in anticipation of future developments. The Economic Research Department had been set up in the ‘20s with an international vision and a specific focus on the analysis of current affairs; the ongoing comparative study of the banking systems was also an important feature.
Antonello Gerbi, the ‘tamed philosopher’ as ironically depicted by Raffaele Mattioli, was the influential leader of the department (Ufficio Studi) from 1932 and 1938 and from 1948 to 1970. Gerbi staffed and re-tooled the department making it an asset at the service of a large bank devoted to short-term financing.
Mattioli’s watch covered also World War II and its horrors; after the surrender of September 8, 1943, Italy was divided at its mid-section and therefore BCI had to split its Head Office, in Milan and in Rome. And BCI became, as we all know now, a clandestine haven of antifascist rebellion in which several of Comit executives were personally engaged, like Ugo La Malfa, Sergio Solmi and others.
At the end of the war BCI moved to reinforce its position of leader in the international markets, leveraging also upon certain strong connections, which had never been severed, with the American finance markets; BCI was also an important factor in the reconstruction of the Italian economy.
In 1946 Mattioli promoted the concept that eventually became Mediobanca, a bank created to supply corporate clients with medium- and long-term finance: Enrico Cuccia, formerly a general manager of BCI, was chosen as managing director of Mediobanca.
The support given by BCI to the Italian industrial network continued during the following years, later dubbed as the period of the ‘Italian economic miracle’, which included new enterprises, new businesses and middle- and small-sized borrowers.
In 1970 BCI’ shares were quoted again at the Stock Exchange.
Mattioli was also a distinguished humanist and a patron of the arts. Under his guidance and personal judgment BCI heavily financed various publishing houses and special research. In the field of economic history, BCI promoted and later published an entire collection of volumes, ‘Studi e ricerche di storia economica Italiana nell’età del Risorgimento’. BCI initiated an original project to collect (and display to the public in the network of branches in Italy and abroad) contemporary Italian works of art; such project was tasked to Vittorio Corna (then head of human resources department) with a view of acquiring a large record of the new Italian artistic production from 1950 onward, including draughtsmen and printers.
Mattioli left the bank in 1972 – his operational and cultural legacies continued as BCI maintained its support to the industrial as well as the cultural world (to wit, the catalogues of the Milanese museums, a body of 59 volumes), and strengthened its international vocation to a position of leadership among the Italian banks.
Namely, in the ‘70s the expansion abroad became impressive as it covered not only Western Europe and the USA but also Asia (Japan, Singapore, China), and Australia. To be mentioned also that BCI joined in 1973 the European Banks International Company (EBIC), a consortium among seven prime banks from seven European countries.
In the ‘80s BCI, again first mover among the Italian banks, resumed operational contacts with Eastern European countries still belonging to the Soviet sphere of influence.
At the beginning of the ‘90s some of the limitations stated by the Italian Banking Law of 1936 were relaxed and BCI could increase its domestic network of branches to about 700.
Between 1991 and 1994 BCI once more transformed itself into a universal banking group – as in the original business model – that would operate according to the needs of contemporary markets.
In 1994, the year of Comit centennial, IRI floated a public offer and sold all of its majority holding in BCI. In 1999 Banca Intesa, through a public offer, purchased 70% of BCI capital; a subsequent fusion happened in May 2001 to create IntesaBci.
On January 1, 2003 the new bank assumed the name of Banca Intesa.