12 March 2017

Gianni Agnelli - business giant

Head of Fiat more powerful than politicians

Gianni Agnelli, pictured in 1986
Gianni Agnelli, pictured in 1986
The businessman Gianni Agnelli, who controlled the Italian car giant Fiat for 40 years until his death in 2003, was born on this day in 1921 in Turin.

Under his guidance, Fiat - Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, founded by his grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, in 1899 - became so huge that at one time in the 1990s, literally every other car on Italy's roads was produced in one of their factories.

As its peak, Fiat made up 4.4 per cent of the Italian economy and employed 3.1 per cent of its industrial workforce.

Although cars remained Fiat's principal focus, the company diversified with such success, across virtually all modes of transport from tractors to Ferraris and buses to aero engines, and also into newspapers and publishing, insurance companies, food manufacture, engineering and construction, that there was a time when Agnelli controlled more than a quarter of the companies on the Milan stock exchange.

His personal fortune was estimated at between $2 billion and $5 billion, which made him the richest man in Italy and one of the richest in Europe.  It was hardly any surprise, then, that he became one of the most influential figures in Italy, arguably more powerful than any politician.  Throughout the rest of western democracy, he was treated more as a head of state than a businessman.

A rare picture of Gianni Agnelli (left) with his grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of FIAT, taken in 1940
A rare picture of Gianni Agnelli (left) with his grandfather,
Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of FIAT, taken in 1940
He became known as 'l'avvocato' on account of having a law degree but he came to be regarded almost as royalty, Italy's uncrowned king.

Inevitably, Agnelli ran into confrontations with the Italian left and the Fiat workforce, most famously in 1979 when he engaged in a 35-day stand-off with the unions after responding to the latest of many strikes by shutting down Fiat's Mirafiori plant in Turin.  Ultimately, it was the workers who caved in, an estimated 40,000 of them joining a march demanding an end to the strike.

Yet many ordinary Italians continued to admire him.  He was the kind of figure many aspired to be, living a playboy lifestyle in the 1950s, when he acquired an enviable collection of fast cars and was romantically linked with a string of beautiful women, including actresses Rita Hayworth and Anita Ekberg, the socialite Pamela Churchill Harriman and even Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Jackie Kennedy.

A stylish if idiosyncratic dresser - he wore his wristwatch over his shirt cuff, for example, and never buttoned his button-down collars - he was also a football fan.  The Turin club Juventus had been in the ownership of the Agnelli family since 1923. Gianni ran the club personally between 1947 and 1954 and continued to own it until his death, often arriving at the training ground in his helicopter to chat to the players.

Gianni Agnelli with his wife, Marella, in 1966.
Gianni Agnelli with his wife, Marella, in 1966.
Agnelli, who was called Gianni by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, was the eldest son of Edoardo Agnelli and Princess Virginia Bourbon del Monte di San Faustino.

Edoardo died in an air crash when Gianni was 14. Subsequently, he was brought up by English governesses. His grandfather was so determined to supervise his upbringing and groom him for his future role as head of the family he fought a custody battle with Princess Virginia.

Gianni studied law at the University of Turin, breaking off to join the army in 1941 before returning to complete his doctorate in 1943 after Italy's participation in the Second World War ended. Having lost a finger to frostbite on the Russian front, he won the Cross for Military Valour in North Africa but ended the war fighting against Germany on the side of the Allies.

When Giovanni died aged 79 in 1945, Fiat was initially placed in the control of its chairman, Vittorio Valetta. Although Gianni was made a vice-president, it was with his grandfather's blessing that he did not become involved. Shortly before he died, Giovanni told his grandson he should "have a fling for a few years" before devoting himself to the business and reputedly made him an allowance of $1 million a year to spend as he wished.

With houses in New York, St Moritz and the Cote d'Azur, Gianni became known for throwing extravagant parties and kept the company of Prince Rainier and the young Kennedys among others.

One of Agnelli's prized possessions during his fast car years - a Maserati 5000 designed for him by Battista Pininfarina
One of Agnelli's prized possessions during his fast car years -
a Maserati 5000 designed for him by Battista Pininfarina
But the years of self-indulgence came to an abrupt end in 1952 when, reputedly after a row with a girlfriend, he crashed his Ferrari into a lorry, breaking his right leg in six places. It was that incident which prompted him to abandon his hedonistic ways and take a more active part in Fiat, becoming managing director under Valetta in 1963.

He finally took charge of Fiat in 1966, when Valetta retired, and under his guidance Fiat rapidly overtook Volkswagen, its main competitor in the popular market. New factories were opened in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The economic slump of the mid-1970s hit the company hard. It did not help that Fiat had become to many on the left a symbol of Italian post-War capitalism, which was probably why it was targeted by Red Brigade terrorists. Many Fiat executives were attacked. Agnelli lived for some years under constant guard.

His methods were not always universally admired - to raise cash, for example, he sold 10 per cent of Fiat to the Libyan government, under Colonel Gaddafi - but over the next 20 years he rebuilt the company's prosperity.

He was married in 1953 to Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, who hailed from an ancient Neapolitan family, and although there were rumours of extramarital affairs the couple stayed together for 50 years until he died. Tragedy struck his personal life, however, when his only son, Edoardo, died in 2000 in an apparent suicide after battling with a heroin addiction.  His nephew, Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, who was seen as Gianni's likeliest successor as head of the company, also died young, of a rare form of cancer, at the age of 33.

A huge crowd gathered at Turin Cathedral for Agnelli's funeral
A huge crowd gathered at Turin Cathedral for Agnelli's funeral
This created a succession problem that persuaded Agnelli to remain in the chair until he was 75, at which point he handed control to his long-time number two, Cesare Romiti.

Agnelli remained honorary chairman until his death in Turin in 2003 from prostate cancer, aged 81.  His funeral, broadcast live on the Rai Uno television channel, took place at Turin Cathedral.  A crowd of around 100,000 people gathered outside.

Fiat is now a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, having been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by Sergio Marchionne just a year after Agnelli's death, following a failed partnership with General Motors.

The Agnelli family still has a presence in the business. John Elkann, the son of Gianni and Marella's daughter, Margherita, is Fiat Chrysler's president.

The Agnelli villa at Villar Perosa in Piedmont
The Agnelli villa at Villar Perosa in Piedmont
Travel tip:

The Agnelli family estate, where Gianni's widow, Marella, continued to live after his death, is in the village of Villar Perosa, about 40km (25 miles) south-west of Turin.  The estate has been in the family since 1811.  Agnelli is buried in the family chapel there.

Hotels in Villar Perosa by Booking.com

The vast Fiat plant at Lingotto was redesigned by the architect Renzo Piano. The rooftop test track remains
The vast Fiat plant at Lingotto was redesigned by the
architect Renzo Piano. The rooftop test track remains

Travel tip:

The former Fiat plant in the Lingotto district of Turin was once the largest car factory in the world, built to a linear design by the Futurist architect Giacomo Matte Trucco and featuring a rooftop test track made famous in the Michael Caine movie, The Italian Job. Redesigned by the award-winning contemporary architect Renzo Piano, it now houses concert halls, a theatre, a convention centre, shopping arcades and a hotel, as well as the Automotive Engineering faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin. The former Mirafiori plant, situated about 3km (2 miles) from the Lingotto facility, is now the Mirafiori Motor Village, where new models from the Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Jeep ranges can be test driven on the plant's former test track.

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