GIANNI AGNELLI, who died last month at age 81, had a special relationship with Henry Ford II, who died in 1987.
They were great friends; true pals who ran in the same lofty European social circles.
Both were forced into leadership roles at family companies that needed to be rebuilt after World War II.
At first glance neither seemed fit for the job. As young men they seemed more suited to lives of leisure than lives of leadership. They were very different from the hard men hired to manage their companies, executives such as Vittorio Valletta and Lee Iacocca.
They were often underestimated.
In fact, each had a sweeping vision and a sense of destiny. Both men inherited legacies from powerful grandfathers and then had to invent ways to keep the legacies alive. A unique form of leadership often results from such pressure.
Agnelli and Ford felt the demands of the market and the short-term interests of other shareholders. But they also felt the weight of their proud families. They understood their special accountability.
They weren't "car guys" or turnaround specialists or cost cutters or master strategists. They were leaders.
Each man believed in his company and its business and in its people and its products. Instead of business school theories, they operated on instincts that were almost always correct.
Fiat should continue to follow the instincts of its long-time leader.
It has long been assumed that Fiat would remain in the car business so long as Gianni Agnelli was alive. Now that he is gone the shareholders must decide the future.
Agnelli intended for Fiat to remain independent. He wanted a company managed by Italians and reflecting Italian tastes and sensibilities. And l'avvocato wasn't just being sentimental, he was being smart.
The health of the global auto industry is best served when a wide variety of independent brands reflect diverse nations and cultures. Why wouldn't the world need an Italian car company? A decade ago some experts said the industry no longer needed a French one. How wrong they were.
In his business lifetime Gianni Agnelli overcame challenges more difficult than the ones that Fiat now faces. The surviving family members and Fiat's current crop of managers should do what Agnelli would himself have done in his younger days - fight hard to keep Fiat in the business of building and selling Fiat cars.
Gianni Agnelli came to Geneva two years ago to be inducted into the European Automotive Hall of Fame. Henry Ford II enters the Hall of Fame posthumously next month.
This year's induction ceremonies - on the night of March 4 in Geneva - will be a chance to celebrate the life of Mr. Ford.
But it will also be an occasion to pay our respects to Gianni Agnelli one more time.