Giovanni Agnelli, generally known as Gianni, was an Italian industrialist and the leading heir of the family that owns the car company Fiat. He was born on March 12, 1921. In 1943, his grandfather, who founded Fiat, named him deputy chairman of the family-run company. He earned a law degree that same year and was given the nickname “Avvocato”, or lawyer. When his grandfather died in 1945, Gianni Agnelli made Vittorio Valetta chairman of the company. In 1947, Gianni became president of Juventus, a soccer team his family had owned since 1923. When he was 32 he married Marella Caracciola, an Italian princess. The couple had two children, Edoardo and Margherita.
Gianni took the reins at Fiat in 1966, becoming a high-profile celebrity in the Italian economy and an international jetsetter. At the end of the 1960s, Fiat had a rough time due to competition with rival carmaker Alfa Romeo and to workers’ protests culminating in the “hot summer” of 1969. Gianni proved himself a skilled mediator, steering the company back on course, thanks in part to ample assistance from the Italian government. Casting himself as a clan patriarch, Gianni insisted that the Agnelli family continue to build cars, overruling his brother Umberto, who favored investing in other sectors. In 1969, Fiat bought rival carmaker Lancia as well as a 50% stake in Ferrari. Gianni was elected president of Confindustria, the elite Italian business lobby, in 1974. The next year, he agreed to an inflation-indexed wages deal with Italian labor unions. At the end of 1976, a fresh round of debt woes forced Fiat to sell a 9% equity stake to a Libyan bank that was liquidated over the following decade. In the 1980s, Gianni Agnelli turned Fiat into a holding company with assets in the publishing and insurance sectors. The company also tightened its links with Mediobanca, an investment bank headed by Enrico Cuccia that extended Fiat financial lifelines on more than one occasion. In 1986 Fiat bought Alfa Romeo, its former rival.
When he was 70, Agnelli was named a senator for life by the Italian Republic. On February 28, 1996, he made Cesare Romiti chairman of Fiat, retaining the title of honorary chairman. Gianni chose his nephew Giovannino, Umberto’s son, as his heir. But Giovannino died of a rare disease in 1997. In 2000, Edoardo, Gianni’s son, committed suicide. That same year, General Motors acquired a 20% stake in Fiat’s auto division. The deal was dismantled five years later. Gianni Agnelli died on January 24, 2003. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, then chairman of Ferrari and a family friend, became chairman of Fiat. John Elkann, a grandson whom Gianni had designated as his heir, became deputy chairman. Gianni Agnelli was an icon of style and sophistication, with a penchant for suede shoes and wearing his watchstrap outside his sleeve.