From its earliest years, Banca Commerciale Italiana (BCI; also known as COMIT in Italy) demonstrated a marked international vocation, one that helped it become the leading Italian bank overseas by the end of the 1920s, under the leadership of Giuseppe (Joseph) Toeplitz.
BCI built up its international activities by developing an extensive network of relations with correspondent banks as well as acquiring stakes in other banking institutions, emulating its German counterparts. In 1905, the bank partnered with Paribas to found Banque Commerciale Tunisienne; two years later, in 1907, it founded the Società Commerciale d'Oriente (COMOR; Eastern Trading Company) in Turkey. 1910 saw both the acquisition of Banca della Svizzera Italiana and the co-founding of Banque Française et Italienne pour l'Amérique du Sud (Sudameris), which would go on to become one of the most important of BCI's subsidiaries. The bank also focused significant attention on South America, whose numerous Italian emigrant communities promised potential customers, including traders and entrepreneurs.
But the bank chose London as the location of its first direct overseas presence, opening a branch there in 1911, the same year in which it created a Special International Bureau (Ufficio Speciale Estero) within its General Secretariat (Segreteria Generale). The London branch was tasked with amassing resources for the BCI Group's overseas banks - most importantly, Sudameris - as well as financing international trade, assisting Italian importers, taking part in the raw materials and commodities trade (using the draft discount system), and making available a foreign currency service. In order to discharge these duties, in 1918 BCI opened a branch in the world's second most important financial center, New York, whose job was to promote the import/export business, extend lines of credit to importers of Italian goods in the United States and collect the receivables of Italian exporters.
BCI then set up a branch in Constantinople in 1919, and another in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1928; their job was to manage the financial flows related to trade in the Black Sea and Asia Minor region.
Following World War I, BCI also turned its attention to Central and Eastern Europe, keen to take advantage of the rich economic opportunities given rise to by the defeat of the Central Empires. The devaluation of Balkan currencies with respect to the Italian lira, the difficulties faced by German exporters and the demise of Vienna's great banks enabled BCI to establish a significant presence in the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and neighboring countries, thanks to its acquisition of stakes in existing banks or creation of new ones, such as Banca Commerciale Italiana e Bulgara, Böhmische Union Bank, Banca Commerciale Italiana e Romena, Banca Ungaro-Italiana, Bank Handlowy, Hrvatska Banka, Banca Commerciale Italiana e Greca, and Banca Commerciale Italiana per l'Egitto.
By 1933 BCI was present in twenty countries, boasting four branches, eleven affiliates, four associate banks and two representative offices (in Berlin and Belgrade). But the bank's international network would be greatly weakened by the financial crisis of the 1930s, and even more so by World War II and its immediate aftermath, which saw the seizure, liquidation and closure of many of BCI's overseas outposts.
In the post-war period, in an attempt to quickly resume its international operations, the bank reorganized its foreign branches and representative offices, which would prove to be of critical importance in helping it to assist Italian companies with their overseas activities, to enter into major international agreements, and to place securities on the New York Stock Exchange.
Starting in the 1970s, a period in which BCI policy was characterized by a clear preference for establishing direct overseas presences, the bank undertook a major new expansion abroad, setting up representative offices and branches primarily in Asia's emerging economies. Japan (1970), Singapore (1971), Malaysia (1972), China (1979), India (1988), South Korea (1991) and Taiwan (1992), but also Lebanon (1973), Iran (1975) and the United Arab Emirates (1977), were the new regions in which BCI sought to develop its own operational network to support these newly-developing economies.
After BCI was merged into the Intesa Group, its foreign network would be restructured once again: the 2002 creation of IntesaBCI led to a global reorganization of the new group's overseas presence, entailing the unification of all of the operational networks of each of its formerly independent member banks.
Francesca Pino, Alessandro Mignone, Memorie di valore. Guida ai patrimoni dell'Archivio storico di Intesa Sanpaolo, Hoepli, Milano, 2016
Carlo Brambilla, La sfida internazionale della Comit, Il Mulino; Bologna, 2013
Francesca Pino, Federica Brambilla, Guido Montanari, 11 December 1911: Landing in London, Milano, Archivio Storico di Intesa Sanpaolo, "Monografie", n. 3, 2011
Roberto Di Quirico, Le banche italiane all'estero 1900-1950. Espansione bancaria all'estero e integrazione internazionale dell'Italia negli anni tra le due guerre, European Press Academic Publishing, Firenze, 2000, pp. 75 ff.
Banca Commerciale Italiana - Archivio storico, Servizio Estero e rete estera, Milano, Collana Inventari, 1997
Giandomenico Piluso, Le banche miste italiane in Sud America: organizzazioni, strategie e mercati (1905-1921), in "Archivi e Imprese", a. VII, n. 13, giugno 1996, pp. 7-57
Gianni Toniolo, Cent'anni 1894-1994: la Banca Commerciale e l'economia italiana, Banca Commerciale Italiana, Archivio storico - Nardini Editore, Milano, 1994
Franco Riolo, La rete estera delle banche italiane. Profili giuridici, amministrativi e fiscali, Bancaria Editrice, Roma, 1990