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Agnelli keeps Fiat in the family

Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Fiat, yesterday ended one of the most popular guessing games in the Italian business world - the name of his successor.

Mr Agnelli told French magazine Le Nouvel Economiste that he was grooming his nephew, 31-year-old Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, to become head of Italy's largest private company. "He has the support of the whole family to prepare for high responsibilities in the group," Mr Agnelli said.

It came as little surprise that the man who has run Fiat more like a royal dynasty than a modern corporation for the best part of 30 years should choose to keep the business firmly within the family. Giovanni Alberto, known as Giovannino to distinguish him from his uncle, has been heir apparent for some time, but only now has received full public blessing.

The only question is when he will take over. He is currently the highly successful chief executive of moped company Piaggio, a position he owes in part to the fact that his mother is heiress to the Piaggio family fortune.

He has made it known his priorities remain with Piaggio for the moment, but is already on the Fiat board and likely to take greater responsibilities. Mr Agnelli senior will stay in his position until June, and may hang on longer if he feels his nephew needs more time. "Nothing would stop me from renewing my mandate. But one thing is sure - Fiat is run by rather old men and needs young blood," the 74-year-old Mr Agnelli said.

Giovannino would be the third Giovanni Agnelli to run Fiat in the last 100 years in a direct line of descent from the founder - his great-grandfather. The only non-Agnelli to make it to the top was Vittorio Valletta, who held the reins for 20 years after the war while the current chairman weened himself off the playboy lifestyle of his youth.

Giovannino certainly has the playboy looks of his uncle, but has pursued an altogether more serious course via a university education in the United States and a meteoric rise through Piaggio. Not that he lacks flamboyance; he likes the poetry of Lord Byron and the music of David Byrne.

When he was 18, he worked incognito on the shopfloor of a Fiat factory. His cover was blown, however, when fellow-workers realised he was travelling to and from work with a motorised escort.