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Ten years after the death of Gianni Agnelli

23 January 2013 17:28 No comments


Tomorrow it will be exactly ten years ago that the ‘Godfather’ of the big Fiat-concern, Gianni Agnelli, was buried. Despite the fact that great industrialists are nearly always reviled in Italy, the entire country was in mourning on the 24th of January 2003. Fiat is of extreme importance to Italy, and as soon as something threatens to go wrong with this company, the whole peninsula gets scared.


Hundreds of Italians are walking towards the roof in Lingotto on the 24th of January 2003 to honor L’Avvocato for one last time.

And in that particular period, the Italians had their reasons to be scared. In the spring of 2002 already, the time when ‘l’avvocato’ was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the giant manufacturer from Turin was on the verge of a disaster. Fiat was going through a difficult period because they had been counting on one person for far too long. The group was about to be sent back in time 100 years and was facing the closure of all of their factories. Fiat had a small chance at continuing as an independent car brand, while Alfa Romeo and Lancia were on the brink of being sold to whoever was interested. Debts the size of Mount Everest and mismanagement, that was the situation on the day that Agnelli died. All of this while the retired big boss had said in the late nineties – during the celebration of the 100th year of existence of Fiat – that he foresaw Fiat taking the step across the borders and making a name for itself. The ‘Made in Italy’-etiquette would be marketed across the entire world by Fiat, so said Agnelli. He was right… But wouldn’t live the day to see it happen with his own eyes.

The entire country sympathizing with the loss of this legendary CEO was proven by the thousands of people from across entire Italy who had come to Lingotto to say farewell (picture above). The media talked about one person only for several days. Though his grandfather was most probably the true revolution for the industry of Italy, Gianni Agnelli was and still is the true hero for most people. Agnelli had that post-war tireless spirit, which we also saw in cyclist Fausto Coppi for example. He made the Italians proud by being who he was and he gave them a new identity; the rare ‘Self-Made Italian’ from the post-fascist era.


The young Gianni Agnelli and his grandfather Giovanni during the war

Gianni Agnelli’s career started in 1943, when he, on request of his legendary grandfather Giovanni, was put to work in the factory as a 22-year old (picture above). His granddad already called him ‘l’avvocato’ back then, which had the simple meaning that Gianni was to be his successor. But these were times of war and Gianni had grown mature pretty quickly because of his duty in the Italian army at the Eastern Front. It was the turbulent period following 20 years of fascism and Fiat was – as a symbol of that ‘Ventennio’ – very fragile. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Giovanni died and, in 1946 shortly after the war, everyone was counting on the young Gianni to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. But he didn’t feel like it yet and remembered the words which Giovanni once spoke to him; “Before you start working for real, you should first have fun and clear your head.” That’s why Gianni responded to Vittorio Valletta (his grandfather’s right-hand man) his request with the following words; “Professor, the honor is all yours.” Valletta led the company for 20 years and did so very well.


Gianni Agnelli his turn to take over came in 1966. Valletta had only just signed a major contract in Moscow, the so-called Togliattigrad-agreement, for the manufacturing of Russian versions of the Fiat 124. Lancia was taken over for a nickel and a dime and Magneti Marelli, too, became a part of Lingotto. They started working together with Citroën but the real big growth of the concern had already taken place. Agnelli was mostly arguing with the trade unions and the increasingly left politics, with the autumn of 1969 as an absolute low. Nevertheless, Fiat was doing well; three out of four cars on the Italian roads were fitted with the badge of the firm from Turin. Lots of unemployed from the south found a job here near the Alps. Fiat produced 1,7 million cars in the year that Gianni was appointed as the big boss. Fifteen years earlier, the counter didn’t even exceed the 50.000-mark.


The major strike of 1980; 40.000 people were roaming through the streets of Turin

Agnelli was given the difficult task to modernize the company, at the expense of employment. Furthermore, the oil crisis followed. The new Italian capitalism was there. Agnelli was being advised by Enrico Cuccia, a banker of Mediobanca. Cooperating with other industrialists and bankers became more and more important in order to keep his grandfather’s heritage from going under. That’s why Gianni became president of the Confindustria in 1974. Agnelli was also looking for a thorough conversation with the trade unions, in hope of being able to break the negative cycle of numerous strikes. However, despite hopeful agreements, the economic climate wasn’t willing to cooperate. Unemployment rose in and around Turin and the number of unsold cars kept on rising. The company itself was in a state of complete disorder.

L’Avvocato tried to get his house in order and did so with Cesare Romiti (after having failed with Carlo de Benedetti), following advice from Cuccia. What came next was a period in which, financially, everything was going wrong for Fiat and the employees had to be patient to get their money. Money was borrowed from a Libyan bank and the competitors were catching up on the big Fiat. However, the turning point was in 1980 when 40.000 protesting employees marched through the streets of Turin (picture above).


Agnelli and Ghidella at the F1, during a prosperous time for the Fiat-concern

Fiat took a major leap forward towards being a renewed successful international group; this reflected in the modernization of the company and the presentation of the modern Fiat Uno in American Orlando in 1983. Thanks to the cooperation with Mediobanca, the company was again financially strong as well. Fiat started taking over several Italian companies such as Galbani and Alfa Romeo. There was even almost a global joint venture with Ford. The family Agnelli took the company public in 1987. The cooperation with the Libyan bank was terminated and Turin started working the US-market. Close relationships with bankers such as David Rockefeller and politicians such as Henry Kissinger were developed. This latter was even a hearty fan of Juventus, the football club of Lingotto.

The financial peak for Fiat was reached in 1989; led by Vittorio Ghidella (picture above), the company was taken to unprecedented heights. Fiat was the fiftieth company worldwide (numbers-wise) and once again the leader of all the car manufacturers in Europe. What followed was a typical Italian drama during which the anew appointed Romiti dismantled the successful management of Fiat. Former CEO Ghidella was fired the first by Romiti because he would have been too dominant and egocentric. The beginning of a vulgar struggle for power, which Agnelli later called a confusing period. Fiat turned into an introverted company, dealing more with politics than economics and business. It was symptomatic for the entire Italian industry at the time. Agnelli never agreed with Romiti and Cuccia, and those were people whom he depended on at the time. They even drove his brother, Umberto Agnelli, out of the company in exchange for new funds. All the papers might have said that Agnelli supported Romiti’s decisions, but it was no secret that the, meanwhile old, Gianni wanted nothing more than to fire him. The worsened relationship with Mediobanca reached its climax in 1995, when the alliance Supergemina flopped. Fiat and Mediobanca decided to go their seperate ways.

Thanks to the necessary government support and the introduction of the Punto, Fiat was able to survive the early nineties fairly easily, but the complete downturn followed. The competition from Germany had built up a significant lead since the fall of the Wall. Gianni Agnelli officially retreated from his position on the 11th of December 1995, he was 75 years old then. However, he couldn’t leave the company behind, though he said it had meanwhile grown into the toughest business in the world. That’s why he remained active behind the curtains. In a speech in 1999, when Fiat celebrated their 100th anniversary and was on the brink of an agreement with GM in March 2000, Agnelli took a trip down memory lane. He mentioned all the peaks of the post-war Fiat, but also pointed to the turbulent lows when Italy was drenched in fear and economic problems.


Gianni Agnelli and his son Edoardo

It was the beginning of a difficult phase for Gianni Agnelli in which he had to bury his own son Edoardo (picture above) after he committed suicide. The police had found him under a viaduct, after which they called upon the elderly father to confirm it was his son. It was a mysterious death and it even had a religious side; Edoardo was born as a Jew but became a Muslim during his lifetime.


The brothers Agnelli watching over the big Mirafiori-factory in the eighties

Agnelli defended Fiat up to his last breath. Shortly before his passing, he denied in an interview with Financial Times that General Motors would take over Fiat. On his deathbed, he was able to appoint his brother Umberto as his official successor. This brother had gone through the same things as Gianni, with his son Giovanni Roberto passing away in 1997 because of cancer. Umberto was only able to lead Fiat for fifteen months as he became sick and died in 2004. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo succeeded him and Umberto’s son, Andrea, is president of Juventus. Sergio Marchionne was appointed CEO, and as we all know, he was the one to take Fiat towards the true globalization. Grandson Elkann has meanwhile set up a strong overarching group; Exor. Ifi and Ifil. Exactly like his grandfather had wished to do, but unfortunately never succeeded in his last years as big boss of the Fiat-concern.



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