Umberto Agnelli

Urbane chairman of Fiat

Umberto Agnelli, industrialist: born Lausanne, Switzerland 1 November 1934; chairman, Juventus 1956-61, honorary chairman 1970-2004; chairman, Fiat France 1965-80, chief executive officer, Fiat SpA 1970-76, vice-president 1976-93, chairman, Fiat Auto 1980-90, member, International Advisory Board 1993-2004, chairman 2003-04; married 1974 Allegra Caracciolo (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Turin, Italy 27 May 2004.


The Fiat Panda, an attractive city car, is currently European Car of the Year and at the Motor Show in Birmingham this week, Fiat's Trepiùno concept car is drawing the crowds. Fiat's financial quagmire of the last few years is increasingly behind it.

Umberto Agnelli, industrialist: born Lausanne, Switzerland 1 November 1934; chairman, Juventus 1956-61, honorary chairman 1970-2004; chairman, Fiat France 1965-80, chief executive officer, Fiat SpA 1970-76, vice-president 1976-93, chairman, Fiat Auto 1980-90, member, International Advisory Board 1993-2004, chairman 2003-04; married 1974 Allegra Caracciolo (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Turin, Italy 27 May 2004.

The Fiat Panda, an attractive city car, is currently European Car of the Year and at the Motor Show in Birmingham this week, Fiat's Trepiùno concept car is drawing the crowds. Fiat's financial quagmire of the last few years is increasingly behind it.

But the Italian company is not like other carmakers. Its destiny is inextricably bound to a single family, the Agnelli clan, which has just lost its head for the second time in as many years. Café owners in Turin, the northern industrial city where Fiat is the largest employer, shrug through the steam of the espresso machine that the days of the Agnellis' iron grasp on the country's last indigenous automotive powerhouse are probably ending.

Cancer has claimed Fiat's chairman Umberto Agnelli, as it did his older brother Gianni in January last year, and also his son Giovannino, the carefully groomed heir for the top Fiat job, who died of stomach cancer in 1997, aged 33. It is a corny sum-up but true none the less: the Agnellis' story is a Kennedy-like drama of riches and tragedy, and the family is the nearest Italy gets to royalty.

Umberto Agnelli had less than a year-and-a-half in the beautifully upholstered leather chair in Fiat's boardroom. Happily, however, he presided over gradually improving fortunes as Fiat fought back with new models like the Panda and Idea, and managed to keep Italian patriots happy by not selling the company down the river - that is, by not giving up the family stake to General Motors. Instead, the unseen components in future Fiats, like engines, gearboxes, and electronics, are being jointly developed with those in Vauxhalls and Opels, saving money and allowing Fiat to reclaim its mantle of Europe's car styling leader.

Umberto Agnelli was born in 1934, one of seven children, but his father Eduardo, founder in 1899 of Fiat, died in an air crash when he was aged just one, and his mother perished in a car accident when he was 11. His older brother Gianni took on the chief role at Fiat with gusto, and revelled in his superstar lifestyle of fast cars, expensive yachts and glamorous women.

It cast a shadow over his urbane, witty, but retiring younger sibling Umberto, who took a law degree and graduated in 1959. When not immersed in study, he was passionate about Juventus, the family-owned football team: he was chairman of the club at just 22, and continued to be closely associated with it for the rest of his life. The family company Ifil still has a 60 per cent stake in Juventus; Umberto Agnelli was also president of the Italian Football Federation from 1959 to 1961.

Where Gianni was the car lover and public face of Fiat, Umberto was the bean-counter. There was also a spell, 1976-79, as a Christian democrat senator. A variety of important posts within the company, beginning with chairmanship at its French outpost Simca, led to a long spell as Fiat group chief executive in the 1970s, and a similar role at the Fiat Auto division in the 1980s.

Eventually, however, Umberto Agnelli was forced out of both jobs. Twenty years ago, Fiat was Europe's best-selling car marque with more than 12 per cent of the market, but its penchant for products oozing style and performance lost out to escalating levels of consistent quality and customer satisfaction driven by Japan and Germany. The Fiat Uno looked good, but the Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Polo lasted better.

Fiat's answer, masterminded by the Agnelli brothers, was to consolidate the Italian car industry. They acquired Alfa Romeo in 1987 and Maserati in 1993, to add to their stable of Fiat, Lancia and Ferrari, and also began to expand into emerging markets. The strategy did not work, and GM acquired 20 per cent of Fiat Auto in March 2000. By 2002, Fiat faced colossal losses of €4.3bn and an 80 per cent collapse in share price.

Industry-watchers were convinced that, with the car fanatic Gianni gone and Umberto appointed the new chairman in February 2003, the car side would be sold. In fact, Agnelli divested other Fiat businesses to concentrate on the automotive division, and had made good headway despite having to lay off thousands of workers. Italy now waits to see if either of Gianni Agnelli's grandsons John and Lapo are considered mature enough to fill their uncle's shoes.

Giles Chapman



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food