HEADING one of Italy's unusual banking organisations in Hongkong for the past five years has proved quite a challenge for Mr Luigi Grisi. Apart from its long and somewhat cumbersome name, Banca Popolare di Bergamo - Creditor Varesino, is, in fact, not just one bank but a collection of 12 banks whose origins are in the industrial north of Italy. ''There was too much competition so we thought it would be better to co-operate than to compete,'' said Mr Grisi. Previously, the banks had been relatively small, private entities catering to niche markets. Since becoming a co-operative, however, the banks now have some 1,100 branches throughout northern italy with combined assets of nearly 16 trillion lire (about HK$8 billion). The Hongkong office, which was set up in 1987, has been able to act as an important link between the banks' Italian clients and the region. ''We are a bridge linking them with Hongkong, China and Taiwan,'' explained Mr Grisi. Banca Popolare's main clients are medium-sized Italian companies looking for trading and investment opportunities in the ''Greater China'' region. The companies are involved in a wide range of business activities such as food and wine, fashion and machinery. ''They look to us in Hongkong to find suitable importers or agents. Once the details have been worked out, we will provide trade financing packages using our Italy-based banks.'' Being only a representative office here, Banca Popolare cannot directly offer lending facilities. Each case has to be referred back to Italy for processing. Mr Grisi said there had been growing interest on the part of Italian companies in doing business with China. ''We are always happy to entertain requests from our customers. I often travel into China to develop networks and sort out documentation.'' After being in Hongkong for six years, Banca Popolare has also established contracts with a large number of locally based companies which, from time to time, need to source specific products from Italy such as machinery or construction materials. Mr Grisi said such requests were referred back to the banks in Italy which could then identify suitable suppliers. ''In effect, we activate the search. If a suitable supplier is found in Italy, then we can get the two parties in touch with each other.'' While trade between Hongkong and Italy has been on the rise in recent years, Mr Grisi said there had been little interest in direct investment. ''We have had requests from Hongkong companies to invest in Italian jewellery manufacturers, and one request to take a stake in a marble processing plant. But, on the whole, there is not much demand. ''Also, we cannot help with stock or property investments in Italy. They are too speculative.'' So far, Mr Grisi has enjoyed the fast pace of life in Hongkong with its endless business opportunities. ''It's a very interesting place and very dynamic. Many Italians are coming here and following this market.''