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  • Agnelli -- the uncrowned monarch of the Italian motor industry

    Fiat patriarch
    March 12, 1921-

    Luca Ciferri
    Automotive News Europe

    Italy has been a Republic since 1948, but it has had sort of a monarch anyway: Giovanni Agnelli.

    At the head of the family owning the Fiat Group, he oversees 4.4 percent of Italy's gross national product, 3.1 percent of the industrial workforce and 16.5 percent of industrial investments in research.

    People call him various names, including Gianni or l'Avvocato, because he graduated in law. They also call him Senatore Agnelli because he is a life member of the Senate like his grandfather, who founded Fiat. But he doesn't care for that name.

    "Everyone here was calling my grandfather Il Senatore," says Agnelli. "Only the first one really counts."

    The family has controlled Fiat for more than a century, although it has often left operations to its managers. Agnelli's manager was Vittorio Valletta.

    "In 1946, I came back from the war in Africa and from the liberation of Italy with the US 5th Army guided by General Clark. Valletta told me, 'There are only two solutions as chairman: you or me.' I replied, 'No way, you should be the chairman.'"

    Agnelli was planning to be a lawyer when the war came. He joined the Italian army in the winter of 1941 and fought in Russia and Africa. On February 25, 1943, he joined the Fiat board as vice chairman. Valletta was named chairman, replacing Agnelli's grandfather.

    Valletta, who remained chairman of Fiat until 1966 at the age of 83, "was crucial to the rebirth and development of the Fiat group," recalls Agnelli.

    "Valletta always had a clear vision of the dimensions of our growth. He used to tell me: 'Do not forget that our sales will be the same as GM's profits.'"

    Fiat's agreement to help Russia build cars -- the Lada is based on Fiat technology -- "for us represented almost a zero profit operation," says Agnelli. "But this plan -- an idea of Valletta -- was very successful in establishing Fiat as one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world."

    Agnelli lists the "car guys" he respects most in his half-century in the business: "Joachim Zahn did excellent work at Mercedes, Lee Iacocca made miracles at Chrysler, and Henry Ford guided wisely and with high prestige at Ford. But the person I admire more is Valletta, probably because I also was very fond of him."

    Valletta's teasing about the size of GM's profits, and Fiat's post-war revival based partly on the US Marshall Plan, have come back to Agnelli in an ironic circle. As a result of a strategic alliance, the Agnelli family's Fiat SpA is now the second largest shareholder in General Motors.