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Interview with Gianluigi Gabetti

He has devoted his life to the Agnelli family. He has led Fiat from Giovanni Agnelli to John Elkann and Sergio Marchionne. Now he assures us: the group will make it.

Interview with Gianluigi Gabetti

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by Sergio Luciano

 

"My opinion of capitalism is what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it is a highly flawed system but I don't know of a better one." "I can't remember a time when the Agnelli family was more united than it is today, driven by a desire for continuity." "Back in the days of Gianni (L'Avvocato) and Umberto Agnelli, Fiat may have been more Italian, but it was a different world then, where the Italian-ness of Fiat and the French-ness of Peugeot were positive values, just to give you an idea, and the multinational giants were considered dangerous.

With globalization all that has changed, but Fiat, by acquiring Chrysler under the guidance of Sergio Marchionne, has built a structure capable of resisting on the global market."

With his blue eyes and white hair, a kindly manner and soft voice, Gianluigi Gabetti, honorary chairman of Exor, the Agnelli family holding company, worked full time until a short while ago, past his 80th birthday: "I don't regret it, but if I had it all to do over again, I'd like to work for a philanthropic foundation from the age of 65."

At 19, he was given a peremptory order by General Wolf, who led the German occupation troops in Turin, to provide his services as an interpreter (he spoke German fluently), but he refused.

When he was drafted with his father and brother he went into hiding and miraculously survived the house-to-house searches until he was able to join the partisans: "I was only sporadically involved in battles, but our activities certainly helped to keep the German troops busy."

He is more militant on the subject of capital where, however, he is a high priest, more than a partisan. He knows all the rituals, but also the ethics. That is what is in short supply today.

Mr. Gabetti, do you ever regret having given so much to capitalism that has only degenerated?

Capitalism is stuck in a rut, and needs to learn how to renew itself and find new forms of expression, linked to the production and distribution of goods, new areas of commitment.

For example?

There are immense opportunities for initiatives in attempting to repair the deterioration of the planet.

My daughter, Cristina, is a passionate ecologist, and she reminds me of it constantly: I think humanity has exploited this planet beyond every possible limit.

Now we need a finance that can focus on recovery, with the participation of the states, and their governments, in some serious programs.

Keynesian?

We can invest a lot in the environment, and that doesn't mean they would be unproductive investments.

But this capitalism is in a rut...

We would need some sort of rapid, general re-education to wake the system up and shake it out of this worrisome stagnation.

Why?

Technological innovation is more promising now than ever before. But if it is not properly financed it won't work.

And what is the right way?

Raffaele Mattioli, chairman of Comit, told me, when I asked him what the growth prospects were for a certain solid industrial plan, based on innovation and concrete in its forecasts: "Finance follows." There it is, the capitalism for which I have always worked tends to finance the manufacturing industry.

On the whole this has worked, and could still work well, if they financed the more advanced outposts of the industrial world adequately, including the service industries, through a targeted commitment of new technologies, with enormous savings.

But what is the virus that is making the global economy so sick?

I asked Henry Kissinger that very question and he told me: "I'll answer you as a historian, in history this period will be known as the age of greed, of avidity for money."

Whose fault is it?

The Americans started it, from the day when Bill Clinton abrogated the Glass Steagall Act, which prohibited the commercial banks from being merchant banks as well. From then on deregulation spread.

I don't say that law, passed in 1929, should be restored, but something should be done to bridle the malfunctions of speculative finance.

If the value of derivatives represents ten times the world GDP, it means that speculation no longer has any brakes at all. In the stage of passage from George Bush to Barack Obama I really had the impression, and I was one of the first, that global finance was out of control. Obama had promised to do something about it, but he did not keep his word.

Why?

He is not an expert in finance, and he hired Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, who were, however, among those responsible for the crisis.

What about the occult forces? That cupola of big merchant banks like Goldman Sachs who are said to be masterminding global finance?

I don't think any institution purposely caused the crisis. There were many operators who acted irresponsibly.

I remember a time in which there were still banks like Rockefeller's Chase, Meyer's Lazard, the Goldman Sachs of White and Weinberg, I can't make judgments about the others.

However some large banks have showed signs in recent years of great vitality, for example by financing new countries, like those in Asia.

What about Europe?

Contagion was inevitable. Speculation almost destroyed the currency markets, and there has been a lot of confusion. Now more than ever, Europe needs a process of political unification. Giving up the euro is not the answer: there are still those who hope to save themselves by fleeing, but it would be a disorderly, destructive flight.

Yet the European Union is in a state of acute crisis, why is that?

One of the main reasons that prompted my generation to seek the European Union, i.e., the prevention of the risk of future wars, is no longer viable.

Why do you say that?

Adenauer, De Gasperi and Schumann where obsessed with preventing war. They called them the three Germans, including De Gasperi in the definition, and they were responsible for the treaty of Rome. After them came Helmut Kohl.

Are you afraid that without the European Union there is a risk of war?

Don't forget what happened in the Balkan states.

But will the Germans resign themselves to supporting the system?

They don't trust Latins, it is their nature. In their history there is a tendency to hegemony. If you hold the winning hand you play it to the utmost, and they have considerable historical responsibility for the past wars.

But we have seen that even in the last 24 hours in Brussels Mario Monti was able to give proof of his strength and, to some extent, he convinced them.

So Europe will be saved?

There are no alternatives, I have to think it will.

Could you ever have imagined the crisis of 2008, which we are still experiencing?

I was vacationing in America with my family and, conversing with some friends, not particularly close ones, I found myself being offered huge sums of money at ridiculously advantageous conditions that, they said, I could invest in real estate transactions for which I saw no reason, and I refused.

But I understood that access to so much cheap money could be an irresistible temptation for many. I was greatly alarmed.

What did you do?

I spoke to the American ambassador to Italy, Ronald Spogli, I asked him what was going on. He expressed surprise. Some time later, when he left Italy, he acknowledged that I had given him an early warning but nothing was done.

At the time I also shared my concerns with Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he merely told me that a certain type of transaction that should always have been forbidden was currently predominant on the markets.

Is there any real will to overcome this crisis?

A lot of people would like to but very few know what to do. And a great many are benefiting.

Is it the fault of bankers who are too young?

I've seen plenty of old bankers behave stupidly...

Are the stratospheric bonuses to blame?

These excessive remunerations damage a society spiritually much more than the material damage they cause. They create social hardship, desperation in some and unhealthy emulation in others.

Will it end?

Even the crisis of '29 eventually came to an end. We will return to normal, but it will take a long time.

What about Italy?

Italian society worries me because I have the feeling that many have given up. If we could find more coherence in the way we reason, on the strength of the Monti government's performance, our country is not in such bad shape, far from it.

If certain recent programs were followed up, we could go far.

What is the key problem?

Education is one of the biggest problems, also because it involves young people above all: it wouldn't take much to make it an instrument of growth. It should be an exercise of merit, and the disaster started when merit was replaced by recommendations, an index of corruption in the mentality of the families.

We have to give the grade the meaning of merit, if it is deserved it should give the right to exemption from taxes. I don't know of a more honest and promising system than one that allows poor people to become rich.

You don't mean to tell us that you have never made or accepted recommendations.

Never only out of friendship, much less indirectly. In my entire life I have indicated someone a very few dozen times, only when I knew the person and it was someone I personally esteemed, and would have been ready to hire myself.

That sounds a little paternalistic wouldn't you say?

It may be paternalistic, but not evil: Mattioli had his method, Adriano Olivetti had his.

And Agnelli?

Gianni Agnelli placed a special value on sentiment in human relations, he did things for people, in his eclectic way, and in any case very rarely.

What was your relationship?

Outside of my family and a couple of friends I've had all my life, Agnelli is certainly the person to whom I have devoted the most time and professional passion, receiving a great deal in exchange, including the privilege of being close to him in important situations for the group but also for the country.

Working with him was very interesting, and in some ways we were working all the time.

You worked all the time?

He could never detach himself entirely from his role, and thus from his work. Nor I from him.

Were you on a first name basis?

Never, I always called him Mr. Chairman.

What brought you together?

Agnelli tended to reward devotion... We had an excellent relationship. It might have had to do with our common experience. He had been in the war, had been sent to Africa, in the front line.

The first time he participated in an operation in the field the colonel in the first tank in his line was cut down by a British plane, Agnelli was right behind it... I had my first experience as a partisan in the lower Monferrato district.

Do you consider yourself a hero?

Absolutely not.

How would you define Giovanni Agnelli?

The most significant Italian in the world, during the short century, that is the second half of the 20th century.

When I lived in New York and told David Rockefeller, Kissinger, Bill Paley of CBS that he was coming, these people - who normally gave appointments one month for the next - would converge in a few short hours, wanting to meet him and hear from him the voice of Europe.

Agnelli was the forefather of a business dynasty. Is that a model from the past?

Family businesses are still the most widespread and the strongest. But there are differences. Look at Buffett, look at Gates.

We speak of them, not their children. Gates has left the operations side of Microsoft and has created a foundation, perhaps it is a more advanced way to proceed.

But Agnelli believed in the dynasty...

He definitely wanted one of his descendents to lead Fiat. And that is what happened. After the death of Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, he chose John Elkann as his successor and personally prepared him for the job.

He kept him near at home, and introduced him to me and I, in turn, observed that the young man showed a strong interest and had the ability to work hard.

We were together for a few years, until I thought the time was ripe to restore to the family the responsibility that I had received, and I retired with a clear conscience.

Does John Elkann believe in a Fiat controlled by the family?

There is a strong desire of continuity and the family is closer than ever.

What about Marchionne, with his edgy style that angers the labor unions, the politicians and now even Volksawagen?

Umberto Agnelli wanted him on the Board of Directors of Fiat, John Elkann and I chose him to take the place of Giuseppe Morchio, who did not want to be limited to the role of managing director.

We have become fast friends, Sergio and I, we spend hours together and I have discovered his genial side. I can only hope that, with John, they will achieve complete success.

Do you think they will?

Yes, Fiat can do it, Marchionne was right to pursue a larger critical mass. Now he has it.

 

"We are great friends, Sergio Marchionne and I. He has a genial side"

 

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