Gianni Agnelli

12/3/1921 - 24/1/2003

Record updated 12-Mar-07

Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat.

Gianni Agnelli
Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat. As the head of Fiat, he controlled 4.4% of Italy's GNP, 3.1% of its industrial workforce, and 16.5% of its industrial investment in research. Mr. Agnelli was born at his parents' country house, Villar Perosa, near Turin, Italy as the son of Eduardo Agnelli (1892-1935) and Donna Virginia Bourbon del Monte (1899-1945), a daughter of the Prince di San Faustino and his Kentucky-born wife Jane Campbell.

He was more meaningfully the grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of the Italian car industry FIAT, and from whom he inherited the command in 1966, after a period of temporary "rule" by Vittorio Valletta during which Gianni was learning how his family's company worked.

Agnelli raised Fiat to become the most important company in Italy, and one of the major car builders of Europe. He also developed the accessory business, with minor companies also operating in military industry. Agnelli and Fiat would come to share a common vision, Agnelli meaning Fiat and, more sensibly, Fiat meaning Agnelli. Mr. Agnelli was educated at Pinerolo Cavalry Academy, and studied law at the University of Turin, although he never practiced law.

He joined a tank regiment in June 1940 when Italy entered World War II. He fought at the Russian front, being wounded twice. He went in a Fiat-built armoured-car division to North Africa, where he was shot in the arm by a German officer. After Italy surrendered, he became a liaison officer with the Americans.

His grandfather, who had manufactured vehicles for the Axis during the war, was forced to retire from FIAT but named Valletta to be his successor. Gianni's grandfather died, leaving Gianni head of the family but Valletta running the company. Fiat then began producing Italy's first inexpensive mass-produced car. Agnelli became president of Fiat in 1966. He opened factories from Russia (at the time the Soviet Union) to South America, and started international alliances and joint-ventures (like Iveco) which marked a new industrial mentality.

In the 1970s, during the international petrol crisis, he sold part of the company to Lafico, a Libyan company owned by Colonel Qaddhafi; Agnelli would later repurchase these shares, however. His relationships with the Left, especially with Enrico Berlinguer's Communist Party, were the essence of the relationships between labour forces and Italian industry. The social conflicts related to Fiat's policies (some say politics) always saw Agnelli keeping the leading role; in the 1980s, during the last important trade union action, a dramatic situation in which a strike was blocking all of Fiat's production, he was able to organise the march of 40,000 workers who broke the pickets and re-entered the factories. This marked the end of the power of trade unions, which would never again be so influential in the Italian political or economic scenes.

It has to be mentioned that in the 1970s Fiat and its leaders became an object of terrorist attacks, mostly by the Red Brigades, Prima Linea and NAP; Several people working for the group were killed, and trade unions were suspected of hiding some terrorists in their organizations.

Agnelli was named senator for life in 1991 and subscribed to the independent parliamentary group; he was later named a member of the senate's defence commission. At the beginning of the 2000s, Agnelli made overtures to General Motors, with whom an agreement was reached to progressively let the American company court Fiat.

The recent serious crisis of Fiat found Agnelli already fighting against cancer, and he could take little part in these events. Agnelli was also closely connected with Juventus, one of the most famous Italian football clubs, of which he was a fan. His phone calls, every morning at 6 am, from wherever he was, whatever was he doing, to the Juventus' president Giampiero Boniperti, were legendary. Nicknamed L'Avvocato (the lawyer) because he had a degree in law (though he was never admitted to the Order of Lawyers), Agnelli represented the most important figure in Italian economy, the symbol of capitalism during all the second half of 20th century, and regarded by many as the true "king of Italy".

A cultivated man of keen intelligence and a peculiar sense of humour, he was perhaps the most famous Italian abroad, forming deep relationships with international bankers and politicians (some of them became close friends, like Henry Kissinger). He was considered by some to be an elegant man.

He left his extraordary paintings to the town of Turin in 2002. Agnelli didn't allow his November 19, 1953 marriage to Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto -- a half-American, half-Neapolitan princess who made a small but significant name as a furniture designer and a bigger name as a tastemaker -- to keep him from having affairs with socialite Pamela Harriman and film star Anita Ekberg, among numerous other ladies. His pals included Rita Hayworth and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, although there is no proof he was intimate with them.

The Agnellis remained married until his death. Their only son, Edoardo Agnelli, was born seven months after the couple's wedding, in New York City on June 9, 1954. Gianni gave up trying to groom him to take over Fiat, seeing how the boy was more interested in mysticism than making cars (he studied religion at Princeton and took part in a world day of prayer in Assisi). Edoardo -- who seemed burdened by the mantle of his surname -- committed suicide on November 15, 2000 by jumping off a bridge in Turin; Gianni himself joined police at the scene. Edoardo never married, and had one child out of wedlock, Giovanni Agnelli (1973), a film producer living in Los Angeles, California. Agnelli stepped down in 1996, but stayed on as honorary chairman until his death.

Giovanni Alberto, the son of Gianni's younger brother, Umberto Agnelli, died of a rare form of cancer in 1997 at age 33 while he was being groomed by his uncle to head the Fiat Group. John Elkann, the son of Gianni and Marella's daughter, Margherita, was expected to take over Fiat after Gianni's death. However, Umberto became chairman, taking over from Paolo Fresco. Fresco had diversified the Group's holdings, but Umberto refocused its activities on its auto and mechanics division. He then brought in Giuseppe Morchio to mastermind a rescue strategy for the company. Morchio was expected to continue to run the Fiat Group as it attempted to claw its way out of its latest financial crisis. However, upon Umberto's death, Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo was named chairman, with Elkann as vice chairman; Morchio immediately offered his resignation. As his successor was named Sergio Marchionne, an expert of reorganisation, who led between 2002 and 2004 the Swiss Certification Company, Societé Générale de Surveillance (SGS).

The many detractors underline that in all his activity he mainly followed his family's interests, despite the eventual damage that this could cause to the nation. Fiat was always regarded by the Italian government as a sort of "obligation-free" company, for which the national labour and tax laws could be adjusted according to Fiat's interests. Also, he was seen as a man who was continuing to enrich himself while Italy was getting poorer. Agnelli never responded to these accusations.

It is, however, necessary to note how he was never personally involved in the many political scandals of the Bettino Craxi government era, even if bribery was publicly admitted in 1994 by Cesare Romiti, Agnelli's most trusted administrator for some 25 years. Number 3 in Fiat's hierarchy, Mattioli was imprisoned for bribery like Papi, leader of the Fiat-controlled Cogefar company. At the time, investigations were started after suspicions of special relationships with Salvo Lima, a Sicilian DC MP later recognised as a mafioso.