Obituary: Giovanni Alberto Agnelli

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, businessman: born Milan 19 April 1964; married 1996 Avery Howe (one daughter); died Turin 13 December 1997.

Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, who has died from a rare form of stomach cancer at the age of 33, was heir-designate to the Fiat automobile empire presided over by his uncle Gianni. Giovanni - known as "Giovannino" - was to have carried on the Agnelli tradition of dynastic control which has been interrupted only briefly since Fiat's foundation by the original Giovanni Agnelli in 1899. His death, and the imminent retirement of Cesare Romiti from the presidency of Fiat, has created a leadership crisis which has yet to be resolved.

Paradoxically, it was Giovanni's enterprising spirit, and his determination to carve out a career without relying on family favours, that brought him to the notice of uncle Gianni and led to his official "designation" in 1995, in preference to Gianni's own son Edoardo. But this lack of favouritism was, of course, relative. It's not every football-mad youth who gets the chance to train with idols like Platini and Boniek, as Giovanni did in the mid-Eighties - something which is easily arranged when your uncle happens to own Juventus. His devotion to the family team was certainly genuine: he made his last public appearance just a few days before his death, at Juventus's crucial European Cup match with Manchester United.

Giovanni Alberto Agnelli was born in Milan in 1964. His father was Umberto Agnelli - Gianni's younger brother - his mother Antonella Bechi Piaggio. Their union was eminently dynastic: while Umberto was already high up in Fiat, Antonella was heir to the Piaggio motorbike industry (for which read Vespas). The marriage did not last, however, and when he was 15, Giovanni followed his mother to America, where he studied first at McCallie Academy in Chattanooga and then at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Between school and university, he found time to spend a month working on the factory floor in a Fiat machine tools plant under the assumed name of Giovanni Rossi - something, it seems, which was as much a personal wish as a Fiat rite of passage. An older colleague who remembers him from the time says that "he wasn't really cut out for the work".

He golfed and skied as well as any scion, but despite being frequently tipped as "Europe's most eligible bachelor", Agnelli had little interest in the playboy lifestyle. He listened to Brian Eno and David Byrne, read Byron and Ovid, and was more comfortable being photographed riding a Vespa than behind the wheel of a Ferrari (another family-owned enterprise).

The Vespa photo-shoots, though, were also good PR exercises: in 1993 Agnelli became president of Piaggio, and worked hard to turn around the group's deficit, relaunching the ultimate Dolce Vita transport accessory with two new Vespa models in September 1996. It was in the summer of 1995, after monitoring his progress as Piaggio, that uncle Gianni officially announced his nephew's investiture as Fiat heir designate; Giovanni would thus have leap-frogged his own father, Umberto, whose candidacy had run into stiff opposition from influential shareholders. (Gianni Agnelli - another Giovanni by birth - had himself been designatd heir apparent by uncle Giovanni, the founder of Fiat.)

In October last year, Agnelli married Avery Howe, an Anglo-American architect (and daughter of the interior designer Sally Howe) who he had met when they were both students at Brown University. In September, when Agnelli's illness was already advanced, the couple's daughter Virginia Asia was born.

Giovanni Alberto Agnelli will be remembered as a serious and hard-working industrialist who attempted to fuse modern American-style management with old-fashioned top-down philanthropism. He once declared: "I am convinced that the role of industry is that of improving society. In the final analysis, this is perhaps more important than the production of profit."