Agnelli, Giovanni (1921–2003)

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Italian industrialist.

Giovanni Agnelli, an industrialist born in Turin, Italy, on 12 March 1921, was known as Gianni Agnelli or "l'Avvocato" (the Lawyer). A leading figure in Italian economic, social, and sports life, he was the son of Edoardo (1892–1935) and grandson of Giovanni Agnelli (1866–1945), one of the founders of Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) in the early years of the twentieth century. After receiving a law degree he participated in World War II and in the struggle for the liberation of Italy.

When Edoardo died in an airplane accident in 1935 Gianni and his younger brother Umberto (1934–2004) became heirs to Italy's largest private enterprise. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1945 Gianni Agnelli became vice-chairman of Fiat; in 1963 he was named managing director and from 1966 (when he succeeded Vittorio Valletta [1883–1967]) until 1996 he was chairman of the company, after which he served as its honorary chairman. From 1974 to 1976 he was president of Confindustria, the Italian employers' organization. This association of Italian manufacturers demanded the strongest possible leadership because the student disturbances and the workers' unrest of those years had created an extremely sensitive political environment. In contrast to Valletta's managerial style, the collaboration among the government, the trade unions, and Confindustria developed into a cooperative system for managing fundamental economic choices.

Between 1966 and 1985 Gianni Agnelli's life was characterized by a continual battle, in which he was victorious, for the control and revival of Fiat. When the oil crisis of the 1970s struck the automobile sector Fiat faced ruin. Agnelli, however, did not lose his optimism, and under the banner of recovery he succeeded in establishing alliances with workers and trade unions, taking advantage of the mistakes of the latter to reduce their influence in the decision-making process of the company. In the 1980s he marketed an automobile, the Uno, whose popularity, due to its low cost and high gas mileage, made Fiat once more a profitable enterprise. By surrounding himself with the very finest managers (from Valletta to Vittorio Ghidella to Paolo Fresco) and establishing alliances with important Italian powers (Enrico Cuccia's Mediobanca [Financial bank]), he reformed Fiat's industrial policy in a manner consistent with international economic development. Supported by the managing director, Cesare Romiti, he relaunched Fiat, transforming it in just a few years into a holding company with branches in the fields of publishing and insurance.

In 1987 Fiat absorbed first Alfa Romeo and then in 1988 Ferrari, a company with which it had collaborated on a technical level since 1965 and with which it later established a joint participation agreement in 1969. Agnelli always closely followed the soccer team, Juventus, of which he was president from 1947 to 1953 (in 1955 his brother Umberto became its president). Agnelli held many positions. He chaired the financial enterprise Ifi (the Istituto Finanziario Industriale, a company founded by Giovanni Agnelli senior in 1927), the Exor Group, the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, and the publisher of the newspaper La Stampa; he was a member of the Board of Directors of Eurofrance, the International Advisory Council of the Chase Manhattan Corporation, and the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

He was active in numerous international organizations, serving, for example, in the Bilderberg Advisory Group and on the International Advisory Board of the Council on Foreign Relations; he was also honorary chairman of the Council for the United States and Italy and vice-chairman of the Association for the European Monetary Union. In 1991 the president of the Republic of Italy, Francesco Cossiga (b. 1928), appointed Agnelli senator-for-life "for his outstanding contributions in the socioeconomic field." In the Senate from the Tenth to the Fourteenth Legislatures, Agnelli had the following assignments: member of the Autonomy Group from 30 May 2001 to 24 January 2003 and member of the Fourth Standing Committee of the Ministry of Defense from 22 June 2001 to 24 January 2003.

In politics Agnelli always distinguished himself for his ability to remain nonpartisan, his pragmatism, and his justified skepticism regarding the ability of Italian politics to reform itself and especially to maintain a middle-of-the-road course. This is the reason that, however proud he was to be Italian, as a magnate of industry he deemed it necessary to seek a stronger international identity for Italy's great industries and corporations. Moreover, he learned how to reconcile his patriotism with his nature as a true Europeanist. He supported the center-left Ulivo coalition (the Olive Tree Alliance) when sacrifices were necessary for Italy's admission as a full member of the European Monetary Union. Yet in the 2001 election campaign he supported the center-right politics of Silvio Berlusconi (b. 1936).

When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 Agnelli passed the chairmanship of Fiat to Romiti. His nephew, Giovannino Agnelli (son of Umberto and the intended chairman of Fiat), had been designated as his successor, but he died of cancer in 1997 at the age of thirty-three; Gianni Agnelli's forty-six-year-old son Edoardo committed suicide in 2000. In June 1998 Paolo Fresco (who had managed the alliance with General Motors, which held 20 percent of Fiat Auto with an option to buy it) was appointed chairman of Fiat and Gianni's twenty-two-year-old nephew John Elkann became director.

See alsoAutomobiles; Italy; Malaparte, Curzio.


Biagi, Enzo. Il signor Fiat: Una biografia. Milan, 1976.

Camerana, Oddone. L'enigma del cavalier Agnelli e altri itinerari. Milan, 1985.

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Kline, Maureen. "Fiat Chairman Agnelli to End Era By Stepping Down." Wall Street Journal, 12 December 1995.

Ottone, Piero. Gianni Agnelli visto da vicino. Milan, 2003.

Pietra, Italo. I tre Agnelli. Milan, 1985.

Pochna, Marie-France. Agnelli l'irresistibile. Paris, 1989. Italian edition, Agnelli l'irresistibile, translated by Giorgio Arduin. Milan, 1990.

Tagliabue, John. "Agnelli Says He Will Retire from Fiat Post." New York Times, 12 December 1995.

Turani, Giuseppe. L'Avvocato: 1966–1985, il capitalism italiano tra rinuncia e ripresa. Milan, 1985.

Wallace, Charles P. "The Next Mr. Fiat?" Fortune, 14 October 1996.

Maria Teresa Giusti