John Elkann, head of the Agnelli dynasty that owns shares in Stellantis, Ferrari and The Economist, has built a reputation as a paragon for how family-owned businesses should manage succession and governance. But a month of scandal involving relatives is a reminder how blood ties can still be wildly disruptive in even the most professionalized of hereditary businesses.
Elkann is the anointed heir of the Agnelli automotive empire, which was founded by his great-great-great grandfather in 1899; he is also the chief executive officer of Exor, the family’s investment fund and the holding company for a long litany of enterprises. The last few weeks have been tumultuous. On Nov. 7, a preliminary hearing in the clan’s hometown of Turin, saw a fresh exchange of animosity in a 20-year inheritance battle between Elkann and his estranged mother, Margherita Agnelli, daughter of Gianni Agnelli. The fabled Fiat magnate, who died in 2003, had designated Elkann his eventual successor in 1997.
The nub of the hearing is whether Elkann’s mother can have their dispute heard in Turin — and thus under Italian law — even as a trial is already underway in Switzerland. Her ultimate aim is to take advantage of more generous Italian inheritance laws that would potentially win her more influence at Exor. People close to Elkann say they consider it very unlikely that anything will change but admit surprise at the opening of another front in the dynastic struggle.
Within days, Elkann had to deal with another crisis involving a family member. His uncle Andrea Agnelli resigned as chairman of Juventus FC, along with the rest of the board, after Italian prosecutors and regulators alleged accounting wrongdoing. Zio Andrea had represented Exor — and thus the family — as chair for 12 years. The football club is worth just 2% of the conglomerate’s $33 billion net asset value but the accounting controversy cast a pall over the entire business. Elkann swept in and said he’d install a new Juventus board filled with “technical, legal high level figures.” He said he’s confident the old board always acted correctly.
Tolstoy famously said in Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And the House of Agnelli has had epic woes. Elkann has repeatedly faced off family crises, starting with the near bankruptcy of Fiat after the death of his grandfather, his own rise to head the empire after the suicide of one uncle and the cancer death of another, his mother’s legal dispute, his brother’s alleged substance abuse.
The dynastic drama reinforces the importance of competent, outside managers in family firms, instead of installing cousins in the corner offices of subsidiaries. Indeed, Juventus was the last outpost still run by an Agnelli apart from Exor itself. On Nov. 1,, as speculation over the future of the football club swirled, Elkann announced the elevation of more external senior independent managers into the Exor business. People close to him say the timing was a coincidence. Still, it underlined his decade-long quest to separate Agnelli family members and friends from operations.
In an interview a few years ago, Elkann told me that the strength of family businesses was the hereditary owners ability to focus on the long term, being risk adverse, loyal to employees while being attentive to stakeholders. It’s a counterpoint to the shareholder capitalism that’s now being found wanting.
The last Elkann takeaway of dynastic control, however, is an ancient one. In a recent Credit Suisse study of hundreds of family offices around the world, Felix Baumgartner, head of premium clients in Switzerland, warned that no amount of organization could overcome inherent family strife. “Single family offices have yet to find a solution to the age-old challenge of managing generational conflict,” he says.
That’s something Elkann is surely aware of as he contends with his mother and deals with his uncle’s troubles. Family can be your strength; it can also be your undoing.
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