Agnelli hands over the reigns at Fiat

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

With customary panache but also a dash of high emotion, Gianni Agnelli yesterday handed over the chairmanship of Fiat to his loyal number two, Cesare Romiti, as his 30-year reign at the head of Italy's most successful private business empire drew to a carefully orchestrated close.

Mr Agnelli formalised his retirement at a board meeting at Fiat's headquarters in Turin just two weeks ahead of his self-imposed deadline, his 75th birthday which falls on 12 March.

He nevertheless remains honorary president of the family-dominated company founded by his grandfather, and retains control of two Agnelli family holding companies - activities which will ensure his continuing influence on Fiat for several months if not years to come.

Mr Romiti, himself 72, is entrusted with the chairmanship for three years only. Mr Agnelli's 31-year-old nephew, Giovanni Alberto, currently head of the scooter company Piaggio, is believed to be preparing to take over thereafter - which would return Fiat into family hands in time for its centenary in 1899.

"I am perfectly at ease about placing Fiat in safe hands," Mr Agnelli said in a farewell statement which emphasised the healthy state of the business. Having faced financial disaster in 1993, Fiat has bounced back to profit with the prize-winning Punto, Bravo and Brava models. In April it plans to launch a "world car", called the Palio, starting in Brazil.

Mr Agnelli's departure has sparked a reshuffle of top management, giving it a more dynamic look. The successful car division manager, Paolo Cantarella, becomes Mr Romiti's number two.

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