PALERMO, ITALY — THE editor of Il Messaggero, one of Italy's most important daily newspapers, when asked how much Sicily counted once replied, ``Sicily counts very much, but only for the Mafia.'' Internationally, the island is known as the cradle of the Mafia and is perhaps the last place one would think to find sophisticated or competitive industry. But some enterprising Sicilians among the 5 million on the island are out to prove that the negative image may no longer be up to date.
Large-scale industrial plants producing petroleum derivatives still account for 54 percent of Sicily's exports. But small and medium-size enterprises contributed to its 6.1 percent increase in nonpetroleum exports in 1987.
One of the most outspoken Sicilians in the drive to develop the island's economy is Rino Nicolosi, president of the Autonomous Region of Sicily. Throughout countless Italian government crises, his priorities have remained to revive the economy and image of Sicily. It is a sign of the times that he sees himself ``more as a manager than a politician.''
Sicily's problems are numerous: high transportation costs on account of the island's location, a shortage of qualified personnel because of loss of talent to the industrialized north, frequent strikes, an underdeveloped infrastructure, a slow bureaucracy, and high unemployment.
Despite these difficulties and the continued harsh presence of the Mafia, several Sicilian companies have managed to thrive.
The island's largest industrial group is Italimprese of Catania, with total billings in 1986 amounting to $356 million. Diversifying early, Italimprese protected itself from a slump in its traditional core business of construction and civil engineering and expanded into the metal/ mechanical construction and agro-industrial sectors.
Today, its subsidiary Agrofil is the largest frozen foods producer in Europe after Nestl'e, and is experimenting with cotton growing. Its construction subsidiaries have landed major contracts in Hong Kong and the Soviet Union. SACMA, another subsidiary, built the plant for fabrication of the supports for the English section of the Eurotunnel. SACMA churns out 368 prefabricated supports a day.
``We Mediterraneans suffer from a terrible complex of victimization,'' laments Ugo Rendo, Italimprese's managing director. ``We must stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and start working instead. We Sicilians must try to develop an entrepreneurial culture and stand on our own feet.''
But there are challenges.
``Being an entrepreneur in Sicily means finding yourself continuously in the front line,'' says Luciano Cassina, president of Cassina, the largest construction conglomerate in Palermo. ``Every move of the public administration becomes an act of courage, because fear and suspicion are always lurking. It is not surprising that many people with ambition move to the north.''
Nevertheless, a new generation of Sicilian entrepreneurs is emerging. These nuovi imprenditori, primarily graduates from Sicily's technical universities, are giving hope to Sicily's economy.
One of Catania's most outspoken new entrepreneurs is Salvatore Torrisi, managing director of AID (Agriculture Industrial Development). Taking the Californian start-up companies as an example, Dr. Torrisi turned AID into one of the most innovative European companies in agricultural machinery, developing high technology for the agro-industry.
AID developed a device that protects Sicily's citrus fields from frost damage without using chemicals. A fully computer-operated citrus-fruit picking machine is under development.
Another promising Sicilian success story is CBS (Concentrati Bevibili Siciliani), founded by two businessmen from Catania and Palermo who developed the know-how to produce juice from ``blood'' oranges that neither separates nor turns bitter when exposed to air - a technique not yet mastered by American beverage companies. Though relatively inexperienced in direct consumer marketing, CBS has brought its own juice brand onto Italian supermarket shelves and hopes to expand abroad soon.
The company has staunchly resisted purchase offers from multinational corporations, Sunkist among others.