Agnelli family's grip on the Fiat steering wheel loosens with the death of Umberto

Cairman who began to turn around the car maker's fortunes dies from cancer at 69

Italy's most absorbing family saga, its Dallas and Dynasty rolled into one, took another tragic turn around midnight on Thursday when Umberto Agnelli, the chairman of the Fiat car group, died in his bed aged 69.

Italy's most absorbing family saga, its Dallas and Dynasty rolled into one, took another tragic turn around midnight on Thursday when Umberto Agnelli, the chairman of the Fiat car group, died in his bed aged 69.

His death from cancer, less than 18 months after his more charismatic brother Gianni was struck down by the same disease, opens up the prospect that an Agnelli will not have his hand on the steering wheel for the first time in Fiat's long history. "For the first time in over a century there is no longer a central reference point," said Italy's deputy finance minister, Mario Baldassarri.

Thirteen years younger than his dashing brother Gianni, who for decades was the living symbol of Italy's biggest corporation and often described as the country's uncrowned king, Umberto was the runt of the family, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, and overshadowed constantly by his sibling. But Gianni's death on 24 January 2003 threw him into the limelight and Fiat into the biggest crisis in its history.

The conglomerate was still huge, employing 170,000 people around the world and 85,000 in Italy, accounting for more than 5 per cent of Italy's GDP.

But as Gianni waned, the empire with which he was identified waned with him. By his death it was losing some 10,000 billion lire per year. Long a symbol of the Italian industrial and design genius, Fiat had become instead a case-study for the limitations of family-based Italian firms.

Umberto, to general astonishment, changed all that. He had been anointed by Gianni as the next chairman some months before the old man's death, but despite the fact that he had been running outposts of the conglomerate since taking control of Juventus football club aged 22, he was a dark horse.

He had spent much of his career a long way from motor cars - running a family insurance business in France, for example. Named by Gianni to run Fiat Auto back in the 1987, he had been rejected by Mediobanca, the all-powerful Milanese finance house. He was on the record as saying that Fiat's days manufacturing cars were numbered.

Was Umberto to oversee the dismemberment of the empire, the end of Fiat as a car maker?

He surprised practically everybody by doing the precise opposite. He promised the family: "We shall get out of this crisis with our heads held high.... To hold fast and go ahead is the best way to honour my brother's memory."

Disdaining the famous names thrown up by the rumour mill, he hired Giuseppe Morchio as chairman, a man with practically no public profile in Italy but long experience working for the tyre giant Pirelli in the US and elsewhere in Europe.

Morchio set about divesting Fiat Group of its non-core businesses, including insurance companies, banks and aerospace, ploughing the proceeds back into the car company. Umberto also persuaded Agnelli family members to put their hands in their pockets - something that had not happened in a long time.

The two men put a stop to debilitating rumours that the group was preparing to exercise its "put" on General Motors, which has a ten per cent stake in Fiat Auto. Instead, the group began rolling out smart new models - a new Punto, a new Uno, a new Lancia Ypsilon, with more waiting in the wings - which have reminded the world that small, neat cars were always, from the days of the post-war Toppolino, what Fiat did best.

The Umberto/Morchio strategy appears to be working: both Fiat Group and its auto division are set to break even, the former this year and the latter in 2005, and to move into profit thereafter. A bitter strike earlier in the spring at Melfi, one of the firm's plants in southern Italy, was a blot on an otherwise improving picture.

But Umberto's sudden death - he had been told his cancer was curable, and believed he had several more years of active life ahead of him - has thrown the troubled dynasty into turmoil once more.

It has been a roller coaster of a century since the Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino bolted together its first car in 1899 - four years before Ford - the fruit of a collaboration between Giovanni Agnelli, a cavalry officer, and a Torinese count.

The First World War saw the firm rise to prosperity but it was after the Second World War that its heyday began, when Fiat became synonymous with Italy's boom years and enjoyed such sway over successive weak governments that it effectively dictated Italian transport policy, ensuring that public transport was stunted and a web of autostrade rapidly enveloped the nation, giving the new Fiat-owning middle class places to drive.

In Gianni Agnelli, the grandson of the founder, Fiat had a figurehead worthy of its stature: the imperious playboy who married a princess with what seemed to be the longest neck in Europe, and who with his looks, his style, his yachts and his fancy foreign friends (Jackie Kennedy, Henry Kissinger) became the embodiment of Italy's dreams.

But getting beyond Gianni was always Fiat's problem. Umberto's son Giovanni - the product of his first marriage to Antonella Piaggio, of the scooter dynasty, who had been groomed for the top - died of cancer in 1997 aged 33. Gianni's son Edoardo committed suicide aged 46 in 2000 by throwing himself from a viaduct, though he had taken little interest in the family firm. With Umberto's death the Fiat board has no member on it with the name Agnelli for the first time since 1899.

Gianni's grandson, John Elkann, one of two by his daughter Margherita, sits on the board and also helps run the affairs of the Agnelli family's private holding company, IFI. John, by common consent, is the heir apparent and future chairman of Fiat but at 28 he is probably took young and inexperienced to step into Umberto's shoes just yet.

Gianni's other grandson, Lapo Elkann, is also committed to Fiat and works as a marketing director for Fiat Auto.

To Umberto, Gianni was in many ways a father figure (his own father died when he was only one), and he lived practically his whole life in his older brother's shadow. With Gianni's death he proved that as a businessman he was at least a match for his brother. It is therefore both his tragedy, and Fiat's, that he should die before seeing his work come to fruition.

Sport
World Cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?