Lapo Elkann talks about his grandfather Gianni Agnelli, 20 years after his death: 'He loved Italy and life so much' - exclusive

The nephew remembers the lawyer. An industrialist who left a deep mark in the history of the country. «Many think that his ride was triumphant and carefree. It is not so'. His last words before his farewell and his two great loves: «Ferrari and Juventus»

  gianni-agnelli-lapo-elkann-launch-today-4 Lapo Elkann with his grandfather Gianni Agnelli who died on January 24, 2003 Photo Video

Was Gianni Agnelli the king of Italy? Died twenty years ago, he left a deep mark on Italian history. Elegant, a lover of good living, ironic, intelligent and determined, he embodied a model of modernity and accompanied, with Fiat, the passage of our economy from the agricultural to the industrial dimension. Around him, his economic empire and his family history has built a real and imaginary world, a Magic Kingdom, in which there has been no shortage of successes, divisions and mourning. The Kennedys are the reference that is easier to make: luck, talent and pain. All together. When we talk about him we never forget Ferrari and Juventus, the print and the Confindustria. However, the sometimes inhumane living conditions of the workers, often immigrants, in the early 1960s were removed. Fiat did not pursue the community business model of Adriano Olivetti nor that of the city factory of Marzotto. But he cultivated research and innovation. The goal was profit. Its products have been at the forefront for a long time and have allowed, with television, highways, mass schooling, to make Italy make that leap into modernity that accompanied its best time. But Agnelli was more. His nephew Lapo Elkann, born in 1977 and now an entrepreneur, talks about it today, with affection and regret - Photo | video

Gianni Agnelli died 20 years ago: let's remember him with his most famous phrases Gianni Agnelli died 20 years ago: let's remember him with his most famous phrases

Lapo Elkann with his wife Joana Lemos in Milan: never seen like this – guard

WORLD AMBASSADOR – «No, King of Italy, no. He was a magnificent ambassador of our country in the world. He defended the tricolor everywhere from all attacks. He has done a lot for this country, especially in the most dramatic moments of the economic crises, using his relationships, his authority, his prestige. Just think of how much he committed to the Olympics in Turin. He is one of the few industrialists who, even in the tough years of terrorism, never thought, as others did, of leaving Italy. I was with him in the US when he was trying to cure his cancer. He decided to die in his Turin, near his factory. He wanted to go back to the place he loved the most. You know, the thing that struck me most about my grandfather was the ability to connect with people. Whether they were an industrialist or a trade unionist, a Ferrari driver or a worker from Maranello, a financier or a journalist. A king is unapproachable, while he was curious about the life and thoughts of others».

What was modernity for him? I don't think it was the same as Elon Musk. «Exactly, it was, in the first place, curiosity. He didn't have blinders, he knew how to read society and looked at innovation as a way to accelerate progress. Gianni Agnelli did not want to block change, of any kind. The history of his company is inextricably linked to technological developments and their impact on people's lives. The future was his concern, even when he knew he wasn't going to live it. He had vision. He looked up, he didn't count his steps with his head down ».

What was Fiat for Italy? “It was everything to him. He didn't drive cars that weren't Fiats. His car was a Croma with a blue and black stripe, the colors that had been handed down to him by his grandfather. I took him back by plane from New York on his last trip, the one he made to die in Italy. I was close to him in those moments and what saddens me, as a nephew, is that he left when the crisis in his company was really serious. And this, of course, made him very sad. But Fiat was important for Italy for its role in the world, for having accompanied the transformation of family life. The arrival of the 500 and 600, for example, was a way of confirming that the hardest times, less than 15 years after the end of the war, were over. Even after the crisis of the early 2000s, Fiat made it, and it wasn't obvious.
The credit went to Umberto Agnelli, Montezemolo, Galateri, Marchionne and finally my brother John. I won't mention other managers because some didn't want the good of Fiat but used it for reasons within their own power. I want to add something I care about: Fiat has given a lot to the country. But Italy has given a lot to Fiat and my grandfather was perfectly aware of it».

How has Fiat changed? «At my grandfather's time we were strong in Europe and in Brazil, today Stellantis has a global reach. But it happened because Gianni Agnelli has always protected the national company, not just Fiat. Had it not been for him, Ferrari would have ended up with Henry Ford and Alfa Romeo, Autobianchi and Lancia would have had foreign ownership. Believe it or not, my grandfather loved his homeland and defended it from anyone. For this reason, even today, after twenty years, it pains me to think about his suffering in the last few days. He had inherited the company from his family, had made it grow and projected on an international scale but at that time, the last time in his life, the fate of Fiat was in danger. I think today he would be happy to see that story continue. It is good. Thanks to my brother John, whose work I want to praise. He multiplied the value of our group tenfold by working with wisdom and balance. The history of Fiat continues with him and thanks to him».

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Can you tell me about that last trip with your grandfather? “I was in New York because I was working at Kissinger's office at the time. We often went together to visit him. I was trying to distract him. I remember I even brought him a black and white tiger. When he decided to go back to Turin, I told him I wanted to stay with him, that I would quit. He replied that I was a fool, that I had a good job and that I had to stay in America. I in turn told him that if that had happened, it was thanks to him. And that everything I had or had done I owed to him. I was a boy then and he looked like some kind of superhero to me. If he was wrong I would have defended him. That's how you do it when you love each other. That's how it is in a family. The day of the funeral we realized that all the funeral homes used Mercedes. I could not allow my grandfather to drive away on German wheels. Then, thanks to the workers of Fiat Auto, an Ulisse minivan was hurriedly set up to let him make his last journey in a car that had those four letters stamped on the brand name».

Do you remember the last words he said to you? «I remind her with emotion: “You, your brother and your sister must be united. Avoid conflicts, avoid quarrels. Please unite, please.' And so it was, as he wanted. Between difficulties and differences we have never lost affection and collaboration. We are three different people in character, education and talents, but we are united. And, for me, this is a general message. We can, we must live together respecting identities and differences. The world is not made to be inhabited by equal people, but by that marvel which is the plurality of cultures, languages, behaviours, ideas, religions».

What relationship did he have with politics? «Scalfari once interviewed him, in the mid-seventies, even asking him if it was true that he had become a leftist. «With politics he had a relationship of respect and distance. He had a habit of always saying what he thought and not what he might like. His goal was not to gain consensus, but to defend the role of his company and his country. He was well aware that these two goals were compatible but not superimposable. And yet he was looking for harmony, not division. He didn't like fences and discrimination. He tried with Peres and Arafat to build a Fiat factory in the Gaza Strip, he thought it would help peace between those two peoples ».

You, John and Giovanni Alberto gained experience as workers in the group's factories. “As a boy I was a somewhat unruly student. Don't be afraid to change. I went to Piaggio for a few months on line 2, on the three shifts, where shock absorbers and stands were made. I was 18, now I'm 45. I was there for two months but still today I can repeat the movements needed on the assembly line. The work there is heavy, repetitive, tiring. Having seen it up close, sharing it, helps you understand how hard that human and professional condition is. I even went on strike against
my cousin John.'

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Let's talk a little about him, about Giovanni Alberto, known as Giovannino. I loved him very much, he was a boy who had a particular light in his eyes. He died in 1997, at the age of 33, of a fast and terrible tumor. We were friends and I would like to hear your memories. «John had charisma, vision, goodness, generosity. He knew how to manage difficulties at work and in the family in a light and effective way. At Piaggio, of which he became president at the age of 29, he did a great job, relaunching it and defining a production ethic. That appointment cost him a lot of pain, because he knew that perhaps his father Umberto would have deserved that post. But the grandfather chose him. Giovanni had charisma, a unique gift, and a capacity for inclusion typical of our family. He was a real Agnelli ».

Do you want to talk about Edoardo? His suicide in 2000 shocked everyone. «Edoardo was my favorite uncle, I loved him very much. He had a protective attitude towards me. I remember as a boy I wanted a fast car and he was worried I was going to hurt myself. He was a deep and sensitive man with great talents. He had studied religion at Princeton, a very courageous choice, thinking of the family he came from. My uncle cultivated a thousand talents. It has not been said enough how much he did to create opportunities for interreligious dialogue. He was a pure person. That he lived with suffering. I remember many beautiful moments and also the most tragic ones. Like his death. Edoardo had problems with substances, as I did. In his time it was something that had to be hidden, a shame. Today in the Anglo-Saxon world, many successful people make no secret of curing themselves of various forms of addiction: drugs, alcohol, food, gambling. I had the opportunity to fight the demons I had inside and to come out. Edoardo couldn't, 25 years ago the hardship had no citizenship. It was to be hidden. Edoardo has had many fingers pointed at him, many sentences handed down. But how many people today are out of addiction, have important roles and lead respected lives? Edward was not allowed this at the time. And I think, it's just my opinion, that I first and all our family should have done more, stayed closer to him. When he died, my grandmother showed all her strength, her ability to live with pain. My grandfather died two years later. I don't think it was a coincidence. I loved and still love Edoardo very much and I still consider him one of my guardian angels today».

Let's move on to the lawyer's two loves. Let's start with Ferrari. «As I said, he saved the Prancing Horse by avoiding it being sold to the Americans. Then he chose the right people: Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt. He doted on Ferrari cars. He loved all the good things in life. It's not enough to be rich to appreciate beauty. Taste cannot be bought. His favorite driver was the one who won. I think he loved Michael Schumacher for this. Then he liked Gilles Villeneuve, his way of driving. And Ayrton Senna, who if he hadn't died in such a tragic way, would have come to Ferrari the following year. He loved talent and courage and recognized them even in his opponents. He was a true sportsman.'

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Juventus. In a famous interview with Enzo Biagi, who asked him what he thought of the fact that Tommaso Buscetta had declared himself a Juventus player, Agnelli replied, after a sigh: 'It will be the only thing he won't have to regret.' ( guard ) . «For my grandfather Juve was a lot. Was it the playful dimension of his life? Not only. He loved Platini, Sivori, Del Piero, Vialli, Zidane and, among the coaches, Lippi and Trapattoni. But his blood bond with the black and white shirt was born further away. Juventus was founded by his father, who died young in a hydroplane accident that decapitated him. Gianni Agnelli learned the news from the megaphones with which, at the time, the newsboys shouted the headlines of the newspapers they were selling. Here I would like to say one thing. Many think that my grandfather just enjoyed life, that his existence was a triumphal and carefree ride. It is not so. He went to war, he saw his mother and father die young, he almost lost his leg in an accident, his son died. Perhaps his love for life was born precisely from his precocious and repeated contact with death ».

The memory of a day with your grandfather. «One day we left on the sailboat. Everyone is equal there, everyone has to work. It was our common passion: travel, adventure, curiosity for unknown places. I would like to go back there, with him. I would have fun and I would feel protected ».