Monday, October 27, 2014

The First Industrial Estate In Spain

For those of us who don't work on it or have cause to enter it, the Son Castelló industrial estate in Palma is likely to only come into the consciousness because of the queues of traffic that build up along the motorway if you happen to time your journey wrong. But there is way more to Son Castelló than any old industrial estate.

Once called Son Perera, Son Castelló has a long history. A certain Joan Castelló acquired the finca in 1578. He was from a family of tanners: industrialists of yore. Ownership of the estate was handed down to family members over the centuries until, in 1952, it became the possession of family relatives, the Roses Montis brothers. In 1955 they set about selling off the estate, and ten years later 84 "quarterades", valued at 53 million pesetas, were bought by the Associació Sindical d'Indústries de Mallorca, otherwise known as ASIMA, an organisation that had been established for the purpose of promoting industrial enterprises. On 3 November 1967 the polígono industrial was opened. It was the first privately owned industrial estate anywhere in Spain, and its first president was one of its founders, Ramón Esteban Fabra, whose name is intimately linked to Son Castelló and to ASIMA, which this year has been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

To mark its fifty years, a book was published in the spring which, replete with photos, anecdotes and factual information, charted its background, and it is a story that is one of the most remarkable in the history of Mallorcan business, because what ASIMA did was to break the mould of how Spanish business operated.

Fabra and his contemporaries were considered to be crazy and idealists. In 1964, despite the free-market liberalism that the technocrats of Opus Dei had presented to Franco as an alternative to the disastrous insularity of autarky, business was still dominated by the concept of organising workers and employers within vertical structures. While this system had been conceived as a means of supposedly keeping unionism and worker discontent at bay, it was one which favoured large businesses and created an environment that did not incentivise new business. ASIMA rejected the system. It not only developed Spain's first industrial estate, it also became the first genuine business association in Spain, and its idealism was founded on precisely those things that the vertical structure inhibited: enterprise, initiative, innovation, entrepreneurship.

ASIMA was to go on to involve itself in other projects. In a way it borrowed from the Victorian ideas of British companies like Lever and Cadbury in that it created social housing for workers and donated land for the building of a secondary school. But it also created the first proper training school in Spain and the first system of what nowadays might be referred to as "incubators" for entrepreneurial ideas and innovation. And overseeing these developments was the visionary, Ramón Esteban Fabra.

The tale is told of how Fabra went to Madrid to present his ideas. He was greeted with suspicion. Having a space for all sorts of trades and professions, having an association for them, giving them the room to grow and develop just wasn't how things were done. The greatest obstacle he faced wasn't so much the government but the Falange. It had been the driving force behind the vertical structure and adhered strictly to the notion of the supreme unity of Spain. Fabra appeared to be proposing something which went against this. In the end, he was able to convince the sceptics in Madrid that laws on labour and on "Spanishness" were not going to be broken. There was agreement but there was Francoist insistence that the industrial estate be called La Victoria; Son Castelló would have been too "un-Spanish". It was only when the regime ended that the original historical name Son Castelló was adopted.

I have argued previously that far from being insular and parochial, Mallorcans, in terms of business at any rate, have long been outward-looking and entrepreneurial. They have had to be because of geography. Tourism brought with it businesses that are now global brands, like Meliá, but the story of Son Castelló shows that the business instinct was wider than tourism. Indeed, the very fact that it was founded at the same time as tourism boomed demonstrates that there were those who appreciated that tourism could do only so much for the economy: businesspeople and not politicians.

There is a twist in this story. A mystery. In February 1983 Fabra went missing. His body was found in the sea off Magalluf. There was no sign of violence. He was clothed except for his trousers. He had drowned, but there was, from what I can make out, no good explanation why. He was 55 years old. ASIMA wanted Son Castelló to be renamed after him. Officially it is. But everyone knows it as Son Castelló.

Photo: Ramón Esteban Fabra, found from an article which would appear to have been published in "Ultima Hora" on 26 February, 1983.

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