"Mondo Agnelli: Fiat, Chrysler and the Power of a Dynasty is a ride in the fast lane." By Jennifer Clark. John Wiley & Sons; 360 pages; $29.95.
The engine of author Jennifer Clark's narrative is the saga of the Agnelli family and how their tenacity and long-term investment vision have kept the Fiat brand on the road since it was founded by Giovanni Agnelli in 1899 as Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or FIAT.
For Clark, a former bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, the story is first and foremost a smart insider take on how the Italian carmaker was able to win control of Chrysler and revive one of Detroit's Big Three automakers.
The U-turn is noteworthy. In 2009, Chrysler Group was formed in a rush at the 11th hour to save the ailing automaker from going belly-up. The U.S. Treasury made a generous multibillion-dollar bailout on the condition that Chrysler had a viable survival plan, Clark writes.
They needed a partner, and "Fiat was the only company that stepped up to the plate," she explains. At the time, Fiat was given a 35 percent stake in Chrysler in exchange for engine and other technology.
By the end of 2011, under the leadership of CEO Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler's U.S. sales were up 26 percent. The money-losing company had returned to profit and paid back the U.S. Treasury its loans. There's still work to be done, of course, including the merger of the two companies.
But the soul of the book is the 113-year story of feisty Fiat and the larger-than-life Agnelli family. That's when it's time to click your seat belt for a yarn that's rich with affairs, suicides, drugs, family lawsuits, secrecy, hidden assets, offshore accounts, Benito Mussolini, princes and princesses, Jackie Kennedy, palaces and yachts, spectacular weddings, stately funerals and deep family loyalty.
It's titillating, voyeuristic fun. Clark tells the Byzantine Fiat-Agnelli story starting with Giovanni, who founded Fiat in 1899. She roars through the life of his grandson, the flamboyant Giovanni Agnelli (known as Gianni), who died in 2003. Clark finishes with a take on current Agnelli heir, John Elkann, 35, Gianni's grandson. The reportedly tamer and methodical Elkann is CEO of Exor, the company through which the family controls their share of Fiat. He's also Fiat's chairman.
Clark's reporting is deep. She got the cooperation of executives at Fiat and Chrysler and members of the Agnelli family, though the book isn't an authorized account. A quibble: Company and family history gets jumbled from time to time, and there are a head-spinning number of players and stories to follow.
In addition to the Agnelli family, Clark neatly recounts Chrysler's current CEO Marchionne's intriguing family history and his impressive career path from Toronto and his early days as an accountant at Deloitte Haskins & Sells to Alusuisse Lonza, a midsize aluminum and chemicals company in Zurich, to Fiat in Turin to Chrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich.
When the Agnelli clan tapped him for the helm of the Italian automaker, it was a bit unorthodox. Marchionne, 59, was not a family associate born and bred in Turin. He was unknown in Italy, and an auto industry outsider. But they had done their homework and shrewdly invited him into the fold. Fiat was losing millions of euros a day when Marchionne joined in 2004. Clark describes how he spent his first few months knocking on office doors in the carmaker's factories, scouring the company's ranks to pick the people to build his 24-member management team.
He did the interviews himself, bypassing the human resources department, she writes. "He was looking for young people who wanted to lead." At the end of his walkabouts, he would give 2,000 executives early-retirement packages. Within a year, after 17 quarters of losses, Fiat returned to profit. His turnaround technique was in gear for the Chrysler challenge.
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