TURIN, Italy (Reuters) -- Whenever Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler, appears in public, television crews jostle to beam his words around the globe. Amid the push and shove it's easy to miss the tall, curly-headed young man who often looks on from the sidelines.
He's John Elkann. And he's Marchionne's boss.
The 36-year-old scion of Italy's powerful Agnelli clan became vice chairman of Fiat -- founded and still controlled by his family -- just under a decade ago, and chairman in 2010. For years, his was the saga of a shy, awkward young heir thrust prematurely into corporate leadership by family tragedy. No more.
Now Elkann is taking the key role in answering the question that faces his family's firm: Is what's good for Italy really good for Fiat anymore?
The question evokes the famous statement -- "I thought that what was good for America was good for General Motors and vice versa" - by Charles "Engine Charlie" Wilson, then the president of GM, 60 years ago.
Nobody is calling Elkann "Engine Johnnie." But many thought Fiat had outgrown Italy in 2009 when it snapped up a controlling stake in Chrysler and left Elkann to wrestle with the politically potent question of how closely the family firm, long the symbol of corporate Italy, should remain tied to the troubled economy of its home country.
Elkann's answer came on October 30, when Fiat announced it would increase its investments by almost 50 percent -- to a total of 16-18 billion euros ($20-23 billion) -- in the next few years. That includes billions to re-tool its five under-used Italian factories and to push its Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands, with venerable names but checkered reputations, into direct conflict with Germany's formidable luxury-car troika of BMW , Mercedes-Benz and Audi .
If Alfa-Romeo and Maserati succeed, they'll reduce Fiat's heavy reliance on commoditized small cars in Italy and southern Europe, ground zero for the continental crisis. But if they fail, the consequences will be harsh.
Europe's mass-market brands, not just Fiat but also Ford, Peugeot, and Opel, are reeling from Europe's slumping car market and each will lose $1 billion or more this year. Ford and Peugeot have announced plant closings to trim losses, in sharp contrast to Fiat. In short, the new moves amount to Elkann's boldest and riskiest bet on the future of Fiat and the Agnelli fortune.