When Vittorio Mincato vowed in 1999 to catapult Italy's smallish, state-controlled oil company into the ranks of the industry's giants, financial analysts shrugged off the pledge as bombast. After all, Mincato was appointed CEO in late 1998 as ENI was emerging from stinging corruption scandals and a restructuring that sharply downsized the company. Inside ENI, complacency was still rife. Mincato's division chiefs sent their new boss forecasts showing no growth for 2000, "just survival," he recalls. That wasn't good enough for the determined Veneto-born manager. He promptly developed a strategy to boost oil production by 50% over three years. Flabbergasted senior managers had to skip their traditional August holidays to begin executing their boss's new plan.
Not only did Mincato meet his target a year early, he also has outperformed the industry for five years straight -- on everything from revenue and profit growth to share price. Last year the company's net income rose 30.2%, to $9.4 billion -- up 155% in five years. Revenue jumped 13%, to $70 billion. Sure, soaring oil prices in 2004 helped. But Mincato wins accolades for focusing on ENI's core oil-and-gas business and cutting costs while dramatically building production (up 70% under his tenure) and reserves (up 30%) in a tough market. With a beefy $94 billion in market capitalization -- more than double the level in 1998 -- ENI is now the world's sixth-largest publicly traded oil company. "We are no longer the biggest of the small, but the smallest of the big," says Mincato.
The strategic leap wasn't pure bravado. As a 42-year veteran of ENI, Mincato knew the outfit's strengths and believed its modest status in 1998 belied its potential. "The limitations of ENI back then weren't part of the DNA of the company," he says. The new CEO ignored government calls to merge with bigger rivals. Betting that oil would rise from its $10-a-barrel level, he snapped up three smaller producers. Mincato's biggest coup, though, was maneuvering deftly in 2001 to lead an eight-member consortium of giants to develop the huge Kashagan field in the North Caspian Sea -- one of the biggest discovered in 30 years, with an estimated 13 billion barrels of reserves.
When bickering consortium partners were deadlocked over the choice of lead operator, ENI won out over much bigger rivals such as ExxonMobil (XOM ) and Royal Dutch/Shell Group (RD ). Mincato lobbied rivals adroitly for the job. "It was a huge leap in the recognition of our technical capabilities," says Mincato.
Born into a family of modest means, Mincato got his first lessons in cash flow at his mother's small retail shop, then went to work at age 19 at a textile company in the Veneto region. He rose to chief financial officer before the company was taken over by ENI. He has labored tirelessly for improved corporate governance in Italy. A director of Milan's Teatro alla Scala, he is a passionate fan of opera, art, and literature, publishing occasional essays on his favorite opera composers.
The 69-year-old CEO steps down soon after two three-year government mandates. Clearly the multitalented Mincato won't look for things to do.
By Gail Edmondson