Roberto Maroni’s spacious office located on the 35th floor offers a stunning panorama of Milan. It is not the views, however, that first welcome visitors to the quarters of the Lombardy president. At the entrance to his office, Mr Maroni keeps a collection of elephant figurines, “all with their trunks up for good luck,” he explains.

And it seem the elephants are doing the trick. Take the example of Whirlpool, a US household appliance producer. In June 2014, the company decided to eliminate 300 jobs in its Swedish microwave plant and move part of its production to Cassinetta di Biandronno, a town located 60 kilometres north-west of Milan. “They do everything better in Sweden and yet Whirlpool chose us,” says Mr Maroni.

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Economic powerhouse

This might not be the best elevator pitch ever, but Mr Maroni is lucky to preside over the region known as Italy’s economic powerhouse. “About a quarter of the country’s GDP is generated here, more than a quarter of the country's international trade comes from this region, half of all multinational companies based in Italy operate out of this region,” says Robert Scheid, a Milan-based representative for Germany Trade and Invest, Germany’s economic development agency.

Although Lombardy established itself as the economic epicentre of Italy, and its residents see themselves as more productive and better organised than their countrymen, in the global game of FDI, this is hardly enough. “If a company is after know-how, Lombardy has some great universities and Italy has a big internal market of 60 million people. But other than that, the country has a big problem with red tape and it is just expensive to do business here,” says Michael Berger, commercial consul at the Austrian general consulate in Milan.

“The business environment in Italy has improved significantly over the past two decades, but still it is not always easy for companies to operate here,” adds John Law, president of the British Chamber of Commerce for Italy.

Promoting Lombardy

To overcome these limitations and attract more investors, the regional government, together with the Lombardy and Milan chambers of commerce, set up investment promotion agency Invest in Lombardy. Since its inception in 2012, it claims to have organised more than 1000 meetings with foreign companies and helped more than 300 investors with their location search. It has also provided investors with access to credit institutions and recruitment firms.

Services such as these helped earn Lombardy the title of one of the top three large European regions when it comes to FDI strategy in fDi’s European Cities and Regions of the Future 2014/15 ranking.

Yet, the agency still has room for improvement. Its website already faces criticism of looking dated and, at the time of going to press, even featured an advert for an event that took place five months previously. Invest in Lombardy is also yet to take advantage of the networks of Milan’s many expats and chambers of commerce.

“Our members were pleased to see that Invest in Lombardy was created. We are willing to work with it and help with seeking new investors in the UK,” says Mr Law. But so far, the British Chamber of Commerce has not gone beyond the stage of signing memoranda of co-operation.

“Of course I would be willing to help [local authorities] with contacts in Austria, but they do not approach me very often,” says Mr Berger. And when they do, he says, it is poorly planned. “We were called 10 days before Mr Maroni’s [recent] visit to Vienna and asked to bring as many Austrian companies as possible to a reception at an Italian embassy. I know that colleagues from France got even shorter notice.”

Milan’s opportunities

Lombardy’s approach to economic development shines bright, however, compared with Milan’s, the region’s biggest city. Companies might expect an investors’ bureau at the city hall, but as Ada Lucia De Cesaris, Milan’s deputy mayor, tells fDi: “Issues of investment should not be measured in terms of people dedicated to them, but in terms of capability to establish relationships, listening and networking.”

Those capabilities seem limited in the case of Milan. Take the example of Mipim, the Cannes real estate fair. Organised every year in March, Mipim brings together senior officials from all over the world to talk about investment opportunities in their locations. Ms De Cesaris attended last year, but this year she had to cancel at the last minute to fulfil Giuliano Pisapia’s duties as mayor. He was out of town on, what Ms De Cesaris describes as a “social mission”.

“Many of the stakeholders that I would have met in Cannes were invited to Milan, so the exchange opportunities are not gone,” Ms De Casaris explains, referring to Expo, a huge international event which is held this year in Milan.

Wait and see

Milan’s Expo will start in May and the city expects to see more than 22 million visitors and participants from 148 countries. Yet, the city’s approach to the event can appear more akin to a forced marriage than an opportunity to build momentum for the city’s development.

Just two months before the event, there are no visible signs advertising the Expo at Milan’s central railway station, nor at the city hall. Tourist information, located a few steps away from the city hall and run by the city, does not give any information about the Expo apart from directions to the pavilion.

“It is more a wait-and-see approach, especially given that public opinion in Europe has increasingly mixed feelings about big events [such as this]. Plus, the media [will] focus on all the big infrastructure projects that are not ready for the Expo,” says Mr Scheid, adding that these projects will be ready, eventually.

The planned projects might not all be ready yet, but the city’s urban landscape has recently gained an ironic new addition given the mad rush to get ready for Expo: a two-metre-high sculpture of a snail placed right outside Mr Maroni’s office.