Elkann, John 1976–
Vice chairman, Fiat
Education: Turin Polytechnic, BS, 2001.
Family: Son of Alain Elkann (writer) and Margherita Agnelli; married Princess Lavinia de Borromeo-Arese, 2004.
Career: Fiat, 1994–1995, intern; Magneti Marelli, 1996, manager; Fiat Auto, 1997, assembly-line manager; 1998, sales and marketing manager; Fiat/General Electric, 1998–2001, e-business project manager; General Electric, 2001, analyst for Corporate Initiatives Group; 2001–2002, corporate audit staff; Fiat, 2002–2003, manager in charge of company reorganization; IFIL Group, 2003–2004, operational officer in Development and Control Department; Fiat, 2004–, vice chairman.
Address: Fiat, 250 Via Nizza, 10126 Turin, Italy; http://www.fiat.com.
■ Heir to Italy's leading business, the company that made Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari, and Lancia brand automobiles, John Philip Elkann was a member of the clan that was once seen as Italy's uncrowned royal family. The deaths of his grandfather, the flamboyant Fiat patriarch Giovanni "Gianni" Agnelli, in 2003 and his great-uncle Umberto several months later propelled Elkann into the vice chairmanship of the Fiat board as well as into control of the Agnelli family's 30 percent stake in Fiat. While the Agnellis had long been preparing Elkann for a leading role in the family business, he was considered too young to yet fully take over.
Part of Elkann's expected strength as a manager lay in his international outlook and background. After attending primary school in New York, he earned a scientific secondary-school diploma at the Victor Duruy Lycée in Paris. While his inclinations appeared to be scientific, Elkann was nevertheless pushed by family tragedy into a life in the automotive business. Gianni Agnelli had designated his son to be his successor, but the younger Agnelli died of cancer at the age of 33 in 1997; Elkann
then became heir apparent. He began to sneak away from his university studies in Italy to complete incognito stints at Fiat operations in Europe. He worked at a headlight plant in England, on a Fiat 500 assembly line in Poland, and in the Fiat sales and marketing department in France.
Named to Fiat's board at the age of 21 in 1997, Elkann's youth sparked rumors of a succession crisis that Agnelli quieted with the reminder that he had also been young when he joined the Fiat board in 1943 at the age of 22. After earning his bachelor's degree in 2001, Elkann found a job on General Electric's corporate-audit staff with the aid of the fellow Fiat board member and General Electric Company chairman Jack Welch. Elkann then joined Fiat's investment group, IFIL; the holdings of that firm included the San Paolo bank, Rinascente department stores, Club Med resorts, the top daily newspapers Corriere della Sera of Milan and La Stampa of Turin, and Italy's most successful soccer team, Juventus. When in 2003 Gianni Agnelli died and his brother Umberto succumbed to cancer shortly thereafter, Elkann inherited the family voting rights in the Fiat Group.
A studious and determined man, Elkann possessed both poise and elegance, but as of 2004 it was not yet clear whether he had the toughness of his grandfather—and the ability to lead Fiat. Elkann would have considerable responsibility for adapting Fiat to a more competitive environment. The Italian automaker had been unable to lure consumers with new models; meanwhile its vehicles had become saddled with such a reputation for needing frequent repair that a popular joke declared that Fiat stood for what owners would tell mechanics: "Fix It Again, Tony." To survive, Fiat needed to reaffirm its brand at home while expanding abroad. Elkann was put in charge of developing the direction of that brand.
The marketing problem facing Elkann would determine whether the Agnelli family remained in the automobile business. Fiat saw its share of the Italian auto market fall from 60 to 40 percent in the late 1990s before striking a stock-swap deal with General Motors in 2000. The arrangement gave 20 percent of Fiat to the American company, with the Italians given the option to force General Motors to buy the remaining 80 percent between 2004 and 2009. The sale would rescue the Fiat Group, which continued to lose money on the 40 percent of the firm comprising Fiat Auto. Other family members, notably the late Umberto Agnelli, had recommended diversification through the sale of Fiat Auto.
See also entry on Fiat SpA in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Edmondson, Gail, and Kate Carlisle, "Who'll Take Over from the Patriarchs?" BusinessWeek, May 13, 2002, p. 60.
Israely, Jeff, "With the Grace of Grandpa," Time Canada, December 1, 2003, p. 50.
Owen, Richard, "Can 'The Boy' Rescue a Dynasty?" Times (London), January 25, 2003.
Rachman, Tom, "Heir Force," Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia), October 20, 2002.
—Caryn E. Neumann