Fiat Keeps It All In The Family

Giovanni Alberto Agnelli won't be moving into the executive suite at Fiat right away. But his 74-year-old uncle Gianni--Fiat's chairman since 1966--has now made it more or less official: The lanky, 31-year-old Brown University grad who carries the name of Italy's most powerful industrial dynasty is destined to become the top Agnelli at Fiat in the next millennium. "I believe he's the most qualified" to represent the family, Gianni told a French economic weekly in late July.

The elder Agnelli's nod to young Giovanni is designed to quell increasing speculation about the post-Gianni era at Fiat. When that era begins is still unclear. Gianni is still giving no hints that he will step down when his current term as chairman expires next June. Fiat is now roaring ahead in high gear, after all, and Gianni might want to be around in an official capacity when the auto group celebrates its centenary in 1999.

When he does take over, Giovanni Alberto cannot hope to wield power as absolutely as his uncle once did. Deutsche Bank, Alcatel Alsthom, insurer Assicurazioni Generali and investment bank Mediobanca have now acquired enough clout as core shareholders to give them a voice in running the company and to offer some counterbalance to the Agnellis. But the young Agnelli will bring welcome new blood to Fiat's geriatric top management. Giovanni has already put in six years as a top manager of Piaggio, the No.1 European motorscooter group controlled by his mother's family. Thanks in part to Giovanni's capable management, Piaggio, with $1.1 billion in sales, is now pushing back the threat from Japanese scooters and expanding into big new markets like India and China.

Giovanni Alberto will bring an American flavor to the company. After his parents divorced, the teenage Giovanni moved to Georgia with his mother, who wanted to escape the social unrest that rocked Italy in the 1970s. Giovanni graduated from the competitive McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., before going on to Brown. But the attraction of Fiat was always there. When 18-year-old Giovanni returned to Italy for a summer vacation in 1982, he worked under the assumed name Giovannino Rossi at the assembly line of a Fiat subsidiary. The experience quickly ended after fellow workers noticed that bodyguards escorted the young man to work each morning. Giovanni's tenure at the top should last a lot longer.

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