28 July 2020

Vittorio Valletta - industrialist

Agnelli lieutenant who turned Fiat into an auto giant

Vittorio Valletta worked for Fiat for 45 years, 27 as CEO
Vittorio Valletta worked for Fiat
for 45 years, 27 as CEO
The industrialist Vittorio Valletta, whose diplomatic and deal-making skills helped him turn Fiat into the beacon of Italy’s postwar recovery, was born on this day in 1883 in Sampierdarena, a port suburb of Genoa famous for shipbuilding.

He joined Fiat in 1921, quickly rising to the top and became effectively the right-hand man to founder and president Giovanni Agnelli, as CEO practically steering the company single-handed through the turmoil of the Second World War.

After Agnelli’s death in 1945 he became president and remained in control of the company until 1966, when he finally handed over to Gianni Agnelli, the founder’s grandson, at the age of 83.

Under his leadership, Fiat grew to such a position of dominance in postwar Italy that at one stage 80 per cent of cars bought in Italy were made by Fiat. The company’s factories employed almost 100,000 people, fulfilling Giovanni’s ambition, which he handed to Valletta almost on his deathbed, to "make Fiat greater, giving more working opportunities to the people, and producing cheaper and better cars".

Valletta also pulled off one of the greatest business coups of the postwar years when he secured a contract with the government of Russia to produce 600,000 cars per year at a factory in the Volga region.

The son of a railway official originally from Brindisi, Valletta moved with his family to Turin while he was a boy. He graduated in economics from a college that is now part of the University of Turin and might have settled for the life of an accountant had his military service as a pilot not steered him into the aviation industry.

The classic Fiat 500 was Italy's  people's car in the 1950s
The classic Fiat 500 was Italy's 
people's car in the 1950s
He was recruited by an organisation charged with co-ordinating the aeronautical industries in assisting military aviation. After the First World War, one of the many contacts he had made asked him to run an aeroplane parts business, which subsequently transitioned into Autocostruzioni Chiribiri, a small car manufacturer.

Valletta joined Fiat in 1921 during a period in which Italian industry was having to deal with an unstable political climate in which the occupation of factories by socialist and communist workers’ collectives was common. The rise of Mussolini’s Fascists further complicated the company’s ability to pursue friction-free trade.

After Agnelli’s son Edoardo was killed in a plane crash, Valletta was appointed CEO in 1928. He spent much of the next decade travelling back and forth between Turin and Rome, trying to stay on the right side of Mussolini, who had a long-standing animosity towards Fiat and Agnelli.

The German invasion of Italy in 1943 put Fiat in a difficult position. They had made vehicles and machinery for the Italian army and were expected to continue to do so for the Nazis. Failure to do so would have led Agnelli and Valletta and others to risk arrest, the seizure of their factories and perhaps even execution.

Fiat's founder, Giovanni Agnelli, saw Valletta as his right-hand man
Fiat's founder, Giovanni Agnelli,
saw Valletta as his right-hand man
Yet Valletta was a patriot, prepared to risk his own safety by deliberating creating excuses for slow production of equipment and armaments, while secretly giving financial help to the Resistance.

Despite this, when the war ended, the trade unions and political parties on the left accused Valletta of collaboration and reported him to the National Liberation Committee, who removed him from his position as head of Fiat. However, the intervention of the Christian Democrat prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi, who had persuaded communist leader Palmiro Togliati that Italy’s workforce needed a successful Fiat, led the Committee to reconsider and he was reinstated.

Agnelli died in December 1945, which brought another crisis for the Fiat board over succession. Gianni, who was heir to the empire after the death of Edoardo, was only 24 and had no experience of running a business. It was with his blessing - and vote as a board member - that Valletta, forever known as The Professor on account of his academic background, was made president.

Rebuilding the business was a herculean task, not least because so many of Fiat’s factories had been flattened in bombing raids. But Valletta put funds granted through the Marshall Plan for Europe’s postwar recovery to good use, even persuading further investment from the sceptical United States on the basis that a powerful Italian economy would help check the growth of communism the Americans feared.

Fiat’s big winners under Valletta’s guidance were the four-door Fiat 600 and its two-door brother, the 500, two massive sellers introduced in the 1950s in place of the popular but dated Topolino of the 1930s.

Gianni Agnelli took the reins at Fiat in 1966 as Valletta retired
Gianni Agnelli took the reins at
Fiat in 1966 as Valletta retired
The company expanded in other directions, too, mass-producing tractors to mobilise the growth of agriculture, and further strengthening the West’s bulwark against the Soviets by supplying the Italian military with its first jet plane, the G-80 fighter aircraft.

The cosiness of Valletta’s relationship with the United States did not stop him pursuing his long-held ambition of breaking into the Russian market, however, and in May 1966 his diplomatic and negotiating skills resulted in an historic agreement being reached with the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev for Fiat to develop a factory and produce a version of the Fiat 124 sedan under the name Zhiguli - later, Lada - beating competition from the French company, Renault.

It was The Professor’s last act as Fiat supremo. By then, plans were already in place for him to step down and for Gianni Agnelli to take charge, at the age of 43, alongside chief executive Gaudenzio Bono.

Valletta was made a senator for life later in the same year, described by the Italian President, Giuseppe Saragat, as "the first Fiat worker, and one of the great men who most contributed to the Italian economic miracle and to the welfare of the country".

Valletta died only a few months later, in August 1967, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while on holiday at his summer villa in Pietrasanta, a town slightly inland of the coast of northern Tuscany.

In recognition of the accord fostered by Valletta, Gianni Agnelli was joined by the Russian ambassador to Italy in placing a laurel wreath sent by the Russian president, Aleksej Kosygin, on his tomb at the Monumental Cemetery of Turin.

Sampierdarena is now an industrial suburb of  the Italian port city of Genoa
Sampierdarena is now an industrial suburb of 
the Italian port city of Genoa
Travel tip:

Sampierdarena was historically a fishing village, named after the church of San Pietro d'Arena.  During the Italian Renaissance it became a residential area, with great palaces being built such as the Palazzo Imperiale Scassi, designed by Domenico and Giovanni Ponzello according to the style of Galeazzo Alessi.  After the coming of the railways (1854) it became one of the great industrial centres of Italy, known particularly for shipbuilding and armaments. In 1926, Sampierdarena was absorbed into the greater Genoa area. Today it is part of the city’s Municipio II (Centro Ovest) zone.

The Piazza del Duomo is the main square in Pietrasanta, a town 32km (20miles) north of Pisa
The Piazza del Duomo is the main square in
Pietrasanta, a town 32km (20miles) north of Pisa
Travel tip:

Pietrasanta, which has Roman origins, was founded in 1255 around the  "Rocca di Sala" fortress of the Lombards by Luca Guiscardo da Pietrasanta, from whom it got its name. At different times belonging to Genoa and Lucca, it came under Medici control in 1484 before being seized by Charles VIII of France in 1494.  Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, gave Pietrasanta back to his family.  The town declined during the 17th and 18th centuries, partly due to malaria. In 1841, Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany promoted several reconstruction projects, including the reopening of once-famous quarries.  The seaside resort of Marina di Pietrasanta is 3km (1.9 miles) away.

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