TURIN, Italy -- Lilli Bertone is determined to revive the coachbuilding business her late husband made an international success - even if it means spending money he left to the family.
"We are ready to invest to keep Carrozzeria Bertone alive," said Bertone, widow of Nuccio Bertone and controlling shareholder of the privately owned Gruppo Bertone. "What Nuccio left is not for us but to keep the company going, because it was generated by the company."
Bertone's only carmaking contract is for 2,000 units of a special-edition, two-seat Mini Cooper S. Production of the car starts in July. The coachbuilder produced the convertible version of the previous-generation Opel/Vauxhall Astra until the end of last year. Bertone didn't get the contract for the new generation of the car because Opel parent General Motors decided to make it in-house.
Sources say Bertone is about to invest 150 million euros, or $181 million at current exchange rates, to win a contract to build a coupe cabriolet for Lancia, a subsidiary of Fiat Auto S.p.A.
Lilli Bertone declined to say whether Bertone was going to spend that sum to get the work. But the number clearly didn't surprise her. "We never bought expensive yachts," she said, "so we can afford to finance such a project."
Nuccio Bertone's father, Giovanni, founded Carrozzeria Bertone in 1914 after working as a carriage wheel maker. After World War II, Nuccio became chief executive of the family business. He transformed the small coachbuilding workshop into an internationally known contract manufacturer and design house that was able to assist car manufacturers with styling, models, engineering, prototype construction and production of as many as 40,000 cars a year.
Nuccio died on Feb. 25, 1997, at age 82. His direct heirs - Lilli and their two daughters - control 65 percent of Gruppo Bertone. The rest is owned by the family of Nuccio's sister.
No plans to retire
Despite being a 70-year-old grandmother of four, Lilli Bertone says she has no plans to retire as CEO of Gruppo Bertone's two main subsidiaries, Carrozzeria Bertone and Stile Bertone, the car designing business.
Lilli's eldest daughter, Marie-Jeanne Bertone, 38, is vice president of Stile Bertone.
Lilli's other daughter, Barbara Bertone, 37, resigned from Carrozzeria Bertone late last month along with her husband, Michele Blandino, 44, because the couple disagree with the future development of the coachbuilding business.
Contract manufacturing has become extremely capital intensive, as carmakers are asking coachbuilders to fully finance new vehicle projects.
Bertone rival Pininfarina, also of Italy, is financing the new niche models it is producing, or will produce, for Alfa Romeo, Ford, Mitsubishi and Volvo.
Pininfarina invested close to 700 million euros, or $848 million at current exchange rates, to build the Alfa Romeo Brera coupe and new Spider, Ford Focus coupe cabriolet, Mitsubishi Colt CZC coupe cabriolet and the Volvo C70.
CEO Andrea Pininfarina wouldn't provide a breakdown of his company's investments or its return on investment for any of the new projects, but he said the deals work for Pininfarina. "We take the risk to invest ourselves," he said. "But it is a limited, calculated risk, as our contracts cover us on a significant percentage of the initial investment and are not strictly based on the number of units built over the model's life cycle."
Lilli Bertone says her company also is willing to enter into similar deals with automakers if it means keeping Bertone's business alive.
"We used to be paid upfront for the investments we made for carmakers," she said. "But if the new rule of the game is to finance a project to remain in business, we proudly accept the challenge."
You may e-mail Luca Ciferri at [email protected]