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Italian Financier Sets Sights Across Borders With BC-Italian Tycoons

January 31, 1988

ROME (AP) _ Italy seems too small a place for Carlo De Benedetti.

The Italian businessman, who already has wide international interests, has now taken the bold step of trying to acquire a major share in the Belgian giant Societe Generale de Belgique, which has holdings in nearly half of Belgium’s 50 biggest companies.

He describes the step as part of a larger design to create a big European holding company.

The attempted acquisition has drawn resistance from the Belgians but admiration at home, where cartoonists have pictured him as both a swashbuckling pirate and a Roman warrior scaling the Alps.

″Carlo, King of Europe,″ proclaimed the Italian newsweekly Panorama, drawing him with a sword in his hand and his black, curly hair sticking out from under a crown.

Generale would be the latest jewel in the crown of the 53-year-old De Benedetti, who says he is trying to create an alliance with the clout to compete with Japan, the United States and the emerging economies.

″For more than a year we have been working on a project to create the first really big European holding company and we have been long convinced that (Generale) would be the ideal vehicle to realize this objective,″ Panorama quoted him as saying.

For a decade, De Benedetti has been a figure to be reckoned with, since he took over as chief executive officer of the debt-ridden Olivetti typewriter company and turned it into a leading producer of office automation and personal computer equipment.

Credited by analysts with imagination and courage, and helped by booming stock markets, he has gone on to put together a financial empire in banking, insurance, industry, food and publishing.

″Rather than hated or loved, I’d say De Benedetti is envied; many would like to have done what’s he done,″ said Franco Aletti of the leading Milan brokerage house Studio Aletti.

In a way, De Benedetti stands out in Italy because his empire is not founded on an old family company as many of the other leaders of the business world here, such as the Agnellis of Fiat and the Pirellis of the tire and cable company.

Nor has success come without setbacks. When De Benedetti was a young boy, the Germans occupied his native Turin, where his father had built a successful business producing metal hosing. The De Benedettis, who were partly Jewish, fled to Switzerland, where they lived in a cramped hotel room, in stark contrast to their comfortable lifestyle in Italy.

Years later, he told the French magazine Debat: ″This experience has driven me all my life. It’s not the material difficulties that (shaped) me but the enormous unpredictability of the future. I realized in Switzerland how much we are in a fog about what awaits us.″

After the war, the family returned to Turin, where his father rebuilt the business and De Benedetti earned a degree in engineering from the Turin Polytechnic.

He then joined the family business, later taking over from his father and turning the company into a major auto-component producer.

In 1976, he moved over to the automobile giant Fiat as chief executive officer, but left after only four months. The coveted post had become a test of wills with the Agnellis, Italy’s leading industrial dynasty.

Two years later, De Benedetti joined Olivetti and soon turned around the company through widespread layoffs and a move into high technology.

It was a time when business executives were targets of gunmen of the Red Brigades, the leftist gang that killed former Premier Aldo Moro, and De Benedetti moved his wife and three sons to Switzerland for safety but remained in Italy himself.

The pace of expansion and acquisition quickened in the ’80s, expanding De Benedetti’s empire to such diverse enterprises as the French fashion company Yves St. Laurent and the Buitoni food conglomorate.

Euromobiliare, a Milan-based investment bank controlled by De Benedetti, has been one of the most active stock traders in recent years and backed his recent acquisitions in Italy.

Since 1983, De Benedetti has been chairman and chief executive officer of Olivetti, of which he is a major shareholder. That year, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. acquired 25 percent of Olivetti, which resulted in an exchange of computer technology and a vast international market for both companies.

There have also been problems. Milan judges investigating the 1982 collapse of Banco Ambrosiano served notice on De Benedetti last May that he was under investigation in connection with the collapse. The judges said the financier was being investigated about the 65 days in which he was deputy chairman of the bank.

The judges have not brought any charges, and De Benedetti says he has done nothing wrong.

He also suffered a setback when the government of former Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi blocked Buitoni’s attempt to buy out the debt-ridden state-owned food giant SME.

De Benedetti, who puts in 16-hour work days, remains the perfect model of the transnational businessman. He is always on the move, stopping in Olivetti headquarters in Ivrea, near Turin, and flying to Rome, Paris and the United States. In addition to Italian, he speaks English, French and German.

End Adv Sunday Jan. 31