United Press International
News. Analysis. Insight.
January 24, 2003
Obituary: Italian industrial giant Agnelli dead at 81
ROME-- Italy was in mourning Friday after the death of Gianni
Agnelli, the former playboy who engineered the transformation
of Fiat into a global brand and the country's most powerful
industrial conglomerate. He was 81.
Flags across the country flew at half mast, and the Italian
Parliament called a special session to declare Friday an
official day of remembrance for the man best known as
"l'avvocato" -- Italian for "the attorney" -- who left a larger and
more colorful mark on Italian business and culture than
anyone else of his generation.
Public expressions of grief came from dozens of figures from
Pope John Paul II -- who called Agnelli a "protagonist of Italian
history ... who gave himself generously for the good of his
country" -- to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who said that
all of Libya mourned the loss of the man who had ties with
Libya dating back more than three decades.
"We all feel great grief and sadness for the death of Gianni Agnelli," Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said, adding that "l'avvocato"
had made people proud to be Italian: "in the war, the post war period, during the era of terrorism and up to today."
Ordinary citizens also felt the loss of a figure considered by many to be Italy's unofficial crown prince.
"All my life, I have heard the name Gianni Agnelli," said 51-year-old Pippo Castellani, a postal worker who watched news of Agnelli's
death on the television at a Rome coffee bar. "It makes me sad that soon he will be a historical figure and not a living and breathing man
who helped shape this country."
Sabina Fusaro, a 36-year-old small business owner, agreed.
"More than anything else I've experienced, this feels like the end of an era," Fusaro said. "It's just terrible that his illness and death had to
some at a time when Fiat itself is also very sick. It must have saddened him to see his company struggle so much at the end."
In recent years, Agnelli's name appeared in the press most often in the context of Fiat's struggles, but he was still known best as the
architect of the company's success.
By 1966, had Agnelli pushed aside his playboy lifestyle to take over the carmaker his grandfather founded in 1899 and by the early 1980s
he had molded it into the maker of Europe's best-selling cars. At its peak, Fiat was the country's largest private sector employer,
producing almost 5 percent of Italy's gross domestic product -- a level reached in the United States only by combining the 42 largest
companies in last year's Fortune 500.
But industry experts said the company rested on its laurels after that, cutting corners on research and counting too much on the
domestic Italian market.
By 1996, when Agnelli stepped down as Fiat's chairman to assume an honorary role, the automaker's share of the Italian market had
slipped to 40 percent from as much as 70 percent 15 years earlier. Early last year, it slipped below 30 percent for the first time and was
just above 25 percent at the start of this year.
But Agnelli's impact on Italy was not limited to his direction of Fiat.
When the Agnelli clan took over control of the storied Juventus soccer team, a generation of business leaders -- most notably media
tycoon and current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- saw ownership of one of the country's popular soccer clubs as the ultimate status
Agnelli was named a senator for life in 1982, and in the role he wielded unusual power for a position taken by many to be largely
In social circles, his influence was almost unparalleled: fashion magazines report that when the dashing silver-haired Agnelli began
wearing his watch over his cuffs and the top button of his shirt unfastened under his tie, Milan's top designers followed suit. When he
started frequenting France's Cote d'Azur on holiday with his wife, a Neapolitan princess, Italy's elite flocked there, too.
Agnelli was christened "Giovanni" at birth, but he preferred the shorter version of the name to differentiate himself from his grandfather,
He distinguished himself in World War II, first fighting in fascist forces in Russia and later, after the Mussolini government tumbled, with
Italian forces serving under U.S. leadership. He took a degree in law from the University of Turin, but he never practiced and instead
concentrated on the playboy lifestyle he was first famous for.
But after a 1952 car accident that left him with a limp visible for the rest of his life, he began to settle down and started work at Fiat. He
was first a department head, then served as vice-chairman, then managing director before taking the helm of the company at the age of
As chairman, he made several unusual moves. When Fiat suffered from the 1970s oil crisis, Agnelli turned to Libya's Gadhafi for
financial help, the start of a long relationship between the two men. And after the end of the Cold War, Fiat was the first Western
carmaker to make an aggressive move into former Warsaw Pact countries, opening plants in Poland and Russia.
Fiat eventually acquired Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari, giving it a virtual monopoly on domestic car production at a time when the
conventional wisdom said European automakers should expand externally. And the company abandoned the giant U.S. market in the
1980s, when it was the only major economy showing steady growth.
Agnelli was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and his condition worsened late last year. He had recently undergone treatment in
New York, after which it was revealed that the condition was terminal.
He is survived by his wife and a daughter, Margherita. Agnelli's son, Edoardo, died in an apparent suicide in 2000, at the age of 46.
Agnelli's children never showed interest in Fiat, and the senior Agnelli's death underlines questions about who will lead Fiat in the future.
In 1997, Agnelli's nephew and chosen heir died of cancer at the age of 33.
The company is reportedly considering several options that could see the company controlled by a group of investors that does not
include anyone named Agnelli for the first time in its 104-year history.
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