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Italy's young guns

New faces, new image. David Bowen reports on the business heirs with a mission to restore their country's reputation
Meet Andrea Bonomi. He is 31, charming, and lives above his luxurious office in Bayswater, London's most cosmopolitan quartier.

There are two reasons to note Bonomi. First, he intends to build his company, 21 Invest, into a venture-capital giant that will help to revive Britain's industrial heartland; that is why he bought the rucksack maker Karrimor last week. Second, despite his British base, Mr Bonomi belongs to one of the most powerful groups in Italy. He comes from one the great Italian families, and is part of a cluster of thirtysomethings with names like Agnelli and Benetton. They are, he says, different from their fathers and grandfathers, and earnestly intend to scrub Italy's mottled reputation clean.

Mr Bonomi's company has brought together money from his own family and from the Benettons. He works closely with Alessandro Benetton, the 32- year-old son of the group's founder Luciano and his most likely successor. Alessandro's Treviso-based company, 21 Investimenti, has put most of its money into Italian ventures; 21 Invest is looking elsewhere. It owns a Spanish carton maker, a UK manufacturer of glass moulds, Johnson Radley, and Karrimor. Last year it came within a whisker of buying Group Lotus when the (Italian) seller changed his mind.

Mr Bonomi is convinced that Britain is "a fantastic place" to manufacture things, but is depressed that the British do not seem to realise it. He sees parallels between England's northern industrial belt and Italy's: Karrimor, he says, is a typical Italian company, in that it is run by a hardworking family and has a fiercely loyal workforce.

But his presence in Britain is not the result of a commercial decision: he has lived here since he was 12. He, like all the other industrial heirs, was evacuated by his parents when the threat of kidnapping was at its height in Italy. These young men have spent most of their lives in France, the UK and the US - which is why they believe they are now well-placed to dropkick Italy into the 21st century.

For most of this century the Bonomis were one of Italy's five great industrial families. The others were the Agnellis, the Pirellis, the Orlandos (who were in copper) and the Pesentis, who controlled cement. The Bonomi empire started in construction, but diversified under Andrea's grandmother, Anna, a formidable dame known as La Signora de la Borsa (the lady of the stock exchange). "She's 86 but is still in the office by seven," he says.

In the 1960s La Signora owned more quoted companies than anyone else. The family's holding company, BI Invest, was a conglomerate with activities stretching from insurance via property to cardboard boxes.

Andrea, born in 1965, was brought up in a fabulously wealthy but frightened Milan society. "Every time they found a Red Brigades' hit list, we were on it," he says. "We went around in bullet-proof cars with bodyguards."

As a result, all the children were sent abroad. Andrea went to boarding school in France when he was eight, and to the French Lycee in London when he was 12. He lived with three servants in the family house in Eaton Square, and thoroughly enjoyed the absence of his parents (his brothers, who were boarders at Harrow, had a harder time). He went to university in New York, and graduated when he was 19.

At about this time, in 1985, the Bonomis lost most of their empire. In a very Italian coup, the chemical company Montedison made a hostile bid for BI Invest. This was odd, because BI Invest was one of its owners. The Bonomis fought off the bid, but decided to sell anyway, and were given $350m in consolation. Andrea found himself with the wealth he was accustomed to, but without much of the business that had been central to his family's life.

He became an investment banker in New York and London, and worked for a couple of years in two remaining family companies. Then in 1994 he got together with Alessandro Benetton to set up 21 Invest. The pounds 12m came from the family coffers.

Now, as he builds his own business, he is watching his fellow heirs with fascination. His partner Benetton is the most glamorous: the man behind the successful Formula One team is good-looking as well as rich. Potentially the most powerful, however, is Giovanni Agnelli, Gianni Agnelli's 32-year- old nephew and the man tipped to take over the Fiat empire. At the moment, he is busy revitalising the Piaggi scooter company that belongs to his mother. Other heirs include Marina and Piersilvino Berlusconi, aged 29 and 27, Rodolfo de Benedetti, 34, and Pietro Ferrero, 32, who manages the European operations of the family multinational.

In Anglo-Saxon financial circles, this type of family involvement would be viewed with disdain. Bonomi says that although there should be no automatic handover to a family member, when it works it works brilliantly. "If Alessandro takes over at Benetton, he will have spent 25 years of listening to people discussing the company at the dinner table."

Thanks to their international upbringings, the current crop of heirs is notably well-trained (usually in US universities or business schools) and diligent. The "playboy count" is almost nil because, Bonomi says, "we were all sent abroad where nobody gave a fig who we were. If we arrived at boarding school and said 'Do you know who I am?' we'd have been beaten up.

"Alessandro works 20 hours a day and never goes to parties. If I go to one a year it's a miracle. And Giovanni doesn't know how to party." Agnelli lives 300 yards from the Piaggio factory, Bonomi says, joking that the only reason he met his fiancee (an English architect) was because she was working at the plant.

Bonomi believes the new boys can escape the corruption that has been part of every Italian government contract. "We have been trained in countries where we never even met the government," he says. "We bring Anglo-Saxon standards with us, and we're not happy to accept that we're all crooks."

But can a handful of people really have an effect on a country the size of Italy? Yes, says Bonomi. For one thing, "You can't imagine how small Italy is - it's a village." For another, famous names untainted by corruption will have an enormous effect on the public. "Alessandro and Giovanni are the two leaders among this generation," he says. "They are giving a good example to the country."