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Lapo Elkann by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Lapo Elkann by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Fiat's Lapo Elkann: Revved up for new challenges Add to ...

Named after the friend of the poet Dante, Lapo was born in New York and is the son of Gianni Agnelli’s only daughter, Margherita Agnelli. His father is Alain Elkann, a Frenchman who became a well-known TV personality. Lapo’s parents divorced when he was very young and Margherita married a Russian aristocrat. The family bounced around the planet, living in London, Rio de Janeiro and Paris (Lapo’s relationship with his mother is highly strained because of an inheritance-related lawsuit she launched against her father’s advisers).

When Lapo and John were in their late teens, their grandfather invited the boys to Turin to join the family auto dynasty. One of them would be chosen to succeed the old man and, ultimately, it would the more business-minded John.

But Lapo got to indulge is passion for the rolling industrial art created by the Fiat stable. He worked in merchandising and marketing for Ferrari and Maserati. “I am in love with cars; I love anything that moves,” he says, regaling me with a story of the time he drove a Ferrari Enzo supercar at 340-kms/hr on Northern Italy’s Balocco race track.

Later, he was intimately involved with the launch and brand promotion of the two cars, the Fiat Grande Punto and the new Fiat 500, that would spare the ailing company from oblivion under the Marchionne regime. Then his personal life fell apart and his relationship with Fiat came under strain.

He quit just as the first Fiat 500s rolled off the assembly line in 2007 and set up Italia Independent and a related communications company. “I was eager to show to myself that I was able to do things on my own without my family money and without my family and the support system of Fiat and Exor, and I did,” he says.

He has no plans to return to Fiat in a management role and says the company is in capable hands under Mr. Marchionne and his brother. “I think he did an incredible job in saving Fiat, but so did my brother,” he says. “What Sergio did I will for all my life be thankful. His energy, devotion and stamina are just incredible.”

He is, however, worried about the future of Italy as the debt crisis gallops ahead, a new recession hits and manufacturing jobs disappear. His hope is that the unelected government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, which replaced Silvio Berlusconi’s discredited regime in November, will make the economy competitive and secure the country’s traditional role as one of the world’s premier workshops for highly engineered products and luxury goods. “Italy has to learn that there has to be a change of mentality,” he says. “We have the luck of having a new Prime Minister who cares for the country. He cares and he is unafraid to make unpopular decisions.”

Italia Independent, less than five years old, is already making a splash in the design world. It is probably best known for its collection of sporty sunglasses, some with velvet or carbon-fibre frames, in wildly fluorescent or fruity colours.

The company also makes stylish carbon-fibre motorcycle helmets, men’s jackets and other apparel, and designer skis. Its latest project is called Ferrari Tailor Made, in which Ferrari owners, for a small fortune, can swathe the car interiors in cashmere, denim or hundreds of other materials in hundreds of colours. His next plans include Italia Independent mobile phones and real estate.

The company, with about 90 employees and €12-million ($16-million) in annual sales, is growing quickly and has given Lapo his own identity. But has it made the Fiat heir and future billionaire happy after so many years of emotional turmoil? “Happy is a big word; I have a much better balance in my life, but I have good days and bad days,” he says. “Just because you’re born in a privileged family and have money, doesn’t mean you’re happy. Happiness you can’t buy. Happiness is something you need to work for.”

_____________________

CURRICULUM VITAE

BEGINNINGS

Born in 1977 in New York City, grew up in London, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Turin.

Attended European Business School in London.

HOME LIFE

Lives in an apartment in central Milan. Single but available.

PASSIONS

Cars, cars and more cars. Owns a matte olive green Fiat 500 with denim interior, a Ferrari

California in Scottish blue, and a Ferrari 458 Italia with camouflage interior and exterior. Loves boats and scuba diving.

CAREER

Owner and founder, in 2007, of Italia Independent, a design and style studio based in Milan.

Worked in marketing and promotion at Fiat and subsidiaries Ferrari and Maserati until 2007.

Was Henry Kissinger’s personal assistant in New York in 2001-2002

First job, at age 17, was making scooters at a Piaggio factory in Italy

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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