Focus on World Family Business Leaders | John Elkann

This week we take a look at John Elkann , chairman and CEO of Exor, the holding company of Italy’s Agnelli family, which owns stakes in Ferrari and Italian automaker Fiat amongst other business interests.

Born in 1976 in New York City, Elkann travelled extensively as a child and lived in several countries, giving him fluency in at least four languages and many cultural nuances.

As a member of the powerful Agnelli family that controlled the Italian automaker Fiat, Elkann was groomed to have a hand in the family by his grandfather Gianni Agnelli’s direction. This attention prepared him to take on important roles in the company at a young age following the premature deaths of his grandfather and Agnelli’s brother’s younger son Umberto Agnelli.

In the original script, Mr Elkann was not supposed to assume the mantle of the Fiat empire so quickly. The chosen heir was Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, the son of Umberto Agnelli, who ran the family holding company while his older and charismatic brother Gianni ruled over Fiat and, for some, Italy as well as the country’s “uncrowned king”. Gianni’s own son, Edoardo, named after Gianni’s father who died in a plane crash, had never shown an interest in the family business. Edoardo committed suicide in 2000, but well before then Giovanni Alberto was being groomed for the top job, first at the Piaggio scooter company and then at Fiat. But in 1997, he died suddenly at the age of 33 of a rare form of stomach cancer.

It was then that Mr Elkann, familiarly known as “Jaki” (short for his second name Jacob), was chosen as the man who would eventually take the helm of the family business interests and Fiat. At the tender age of 22, he was appointed to the Fiat board while continuing to study for his engineering degree at the Turin polytechnic. He was sent to work incognito in a Fiat headlight manufacturing plant in Birmingham in the UK, lodging with a local family who had no clue who he was and spending his evenings eating dinners in front of the television. He then worked, incognito again, on a Fiat assembly line in Poland, and later in General Electric’s audit department in the US under the wing of Jack Welch, the former GE chairman and chief executive, who was a friend of his grandfather Gianni and a Fiat board member. Gianni died in 2003 and his brother Umberto took over as Fiat chairman. Umberto died 16 months later and it was then that the young Mr Elkann was thrust in the limelight at a time when Fiat was on the ropes.

The company nearly went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by its banks. A new chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, was recruited to sort out Fiat while the anointed heir pursued his apprenticeship for the top job under the watchful eye of Gianluigi Gabbetti, one of the family’s most trusted advisers. Mr Elkann started to come into his own when he was made chairman of the Agnelli family holding companies two years ago. But it was not going to be easy, even though he had struck up a close relationship with Mr Marchionne. The Fiat chief executive was beginning to perform miracles by reviving what many at the time considered an industrial basket case.

Though raised with the knowledge that a family business was his to inherit and manage, Elkann is described as a shy and discrete person that works with others to get a job done. At the time Elkann attained the position of vice chair, Fiat was suffering from its vehicles’ poor reputation for reliability. Elkann worked closely with management and helped to turn the company around.

Elkann became chair of the company in 2010 at the age of 36 when Luca Cordero di Montezemolo stepped down. Chair and CEO today and in his early 40s, Elkann oversees an automobile empire and is one of the richest men in Italy.

He oversaw deals including FIAT’s 2009 acquisition of a stake in Chrysler and its merger with Peugeot in January 2021 to form Stellantis.

Exor’s portfolio also includes Italian football team Juventus and media organizations including the Economist and several leading Italian newspapers.

 

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