Italy SpA offers an object lesson in corporate decline 22 October 2020
FEW WORKS of literature capture the challenges of managing decay better than “The Leopard”, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece about Sicilian blue bloods struggling to adapt to the changes ushered in by Italian unification in the 1860s. Replace the “shabby minor gentry” with Silicon Valley parvenus and recently impoverished but now monied masses with emerging China, and the novel also serves as an apt metaphor for the decline of once-princely corporate Italy.
“We had the richest and most perfect region of the world but we are old aristocrats who are losing our momentum,” sighs Marco Tronchetti Provera, boss of Pirelli, a 148-year-old tyremaker based in Milan. Many of his fellow chief executives echo di Lampedusa’s Don Fabrizio, who pined for the days when “We were the leopards, the lions.” Like the fictional patriarch, they see the world in upheaval but find themselves unable to do much about it.
Ironically, when di Lampedusa’s novel was published in 1958 Italy was the opposite of decaying. Its GDP doubled between 1951 and 1963, and by 1973 added another two-thirds. Gianni Agnelli, Fiat’s dashing owner, hobnobbed with the Kennedys. The Red Brigades’ campaign of terror launched in 1970 shook business for over a decade but did not cripple it. Olivetti became the world’s second-biggest computer-maker, behind…