Agnellis Shift Focus to Insurance From Fiats With PartnerRe Bid

John Elkann
John Elkann, Turin-based Exor’s chairman and chief executive officer. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The billionaire Agnellis will become more interested in hurricane damage and less dependent on sales of Alfa Romeo sports cars and CNH tractors if their $6.8 billion bid for reinsurer PartnerRe Ltd is successful.

PartnerRe, which assumes risks for natural disasters as part of its business, would be the biggest single acquisition by the Agnellis in more than a century. The investment would represent about a third of Exor SpA’s 15-billion-euro gross assets value. Its controlling stake in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is now almost half of Exor’s assets.

The push into reinsurance is part of a strategy by family leader John Elkann, 39, who has been looking for an investment in the financial services industry after selling Geneva-based product-inspection provider SGS SA in 2013. Exor, which has funds to invest after agreeing on Monday to sell real-estate company Cushman & Wakefield Inc. for about $2 billion, wants to reduce its dependence on the car industry to help generate higher profit.

“We have worked very hard in the last few years to simplify what Exor is,” Elkann said Tuesday in an interview at Exor’s headquarters in Turin before the board met to raise its bid for PartnerRe. “The idea to have a service business, which is lower in terms of capital absorption and global, is extremely sensible in giving us a broader scope of activities and a good complement to what are the industrial businesses we own, which is by nature more capital intensive.”

Takeover Battle

Exor upped the ante Tuesday in the takeover battle for Bermuda-based PartnerRe, raising its bid by 5.8 percent in a final push to beat out rival Axis Capital Holdings Ltd. for control of the reinsurer. The investor has backed its $6.8 billion bid by buying 9.32 percent of PartnerRe. A reinsurer provides coverage for primary insurance companies.

“It’s the beginning of a new era for the family and the final sign of a real generational change,” said Giuseppe Berta, a history professor at Bocconi University in Milan and former head Fiat’s archives. “Another symbolic move away from Turin, Italy and Europe for global investment by John.”

Elkann, born in New York and raised in the U.K., Brazil, France and Italy, is the reigning heir of the Agnelli family, the industrial clan that’s controlled Fiat for over 115 years. Under his leadership, Exor’s shares have risen more than seven times since the company was formed in 2009 by combining two holding companies.

Factory Worker

The grandson of Gianni Agnelli, who built Fiat into Italy’s biggest manufacturer, Elkann was groomed at a young age to take over the family business, including stints working anonymously on factory lines in Poland and the U.K. Appointed to Fiat’s board at the age of 21, he was chosen in part because there were few options.

Gianni Agnelli’s only son Edoardo died in 2000, while Elkann’s younger brother Lapo has battled drug problems. Umberto Agnelli, Elkann’s uncle, died in 2004, a year after Gianni’s death, forcing the then 28-year-old to oversee the family’s investment in the company.

Hiring Sergio Marchionne -- an auto-industry rookie, who was toiling away in relative obscurity as head of SGS SA -- was Elkann’s biggest coup soon after he took the helm of the family business. Backed by Elkann, Marchionne turned around Fiat from the brink of bankruptcy to become the world’s seventh-biggest carmaker after combining last year with its American unit Chrysler.

Car Business

The next step might be a dilution of the family’s investment in the car business. Both Marchionne and Elkann, who regularly attend Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholder meetings, have been vocal about the need for the auto industry to consolidate. While the Agnellis are not planning to sell their holding, the family would consider diluting their stake if Fiat-Chrysler combined with a rival.

Elkann said his job in reshaping Exor’s portfolio isn’t done. “It’s never completed, and we have a long journey in front of us.”

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