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



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