segunda-feira, 8 de julho de 2013

Fiat’s Rough Road, and Its Renewal By BRYAN BURROUGH




Fiat’s Rough Road, and Its Renewal
By BRYAN BURROUGH

The times out of 10, it’s possible to predict the quality of narrative books, especially those set in the business world, even before the author sits down and begins writing — even before the first interview is secure in a tape recorder. It’s not the idea or the specific angle that is the giveaway. Sad to say, it’s the access.
Without access, without hours of interviews with the people who populate the story, a narrative book is all but doomed. You think everyone would be buying Walter Isaacson’s book if Steve Jobs hadn’t decided to cooperate? Doubt it. What you get without access is an “outside” book, often cold and impersonal, typically cobbled together from magazine and newspaper clippings and interviews with analysts and others who never quite know what’s really going on.
Jennifer Clark, a onetime Rome bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, has a rousing tale to tell in “Mondo Agnelli: Fiat, Chrysler and the Power of a Dynasty (Wiley & Sons, $29.95). It’s the story of the great Italian industrialist, Gianni Agnelli; the turnaround at his family’s crown jewel, Fiat, after his death; and Fiat’s subsequent takeover and government-financed rescue of Chrysler.
Ms. Clark has a good grasp of her narrative, especially when it remains in Italy. From the detail in her text and footnotes, it would appear that she enjoyed decent if unspectacular access to current and former Fiat and Agnelli executives. And, unfortunately, in the end, that’s what “Mondo Agnelli” ends up being: decent if unspectacular.
The book’s most serious failing is an inability to shed much new light on the Chrysler side of the story. “Most of those” at Chrysler, Ms. Clark notes, declined to be interviewed, which is a shame, given that it’s the Chrysler angle that will appeal most to American readers.
The Italian sections of the book are stronger than those set in the United States, so much so that I wonder how good the book might have been had Ms. Clark corralled a co-author based in Detroit. After Fiat’s 2008-9 takeover of Chrysler, the surprising turnaround that Fiat’s C.E.O., Sergio Marchionne then engineers consumes all of 31 pages, the last 10 percent of the book. I’ve read Fortune articles almost as long, and with far more insider sources.
The book begins — well, check that a moment. The story begins toward the end of the 19th century, when a well-to-do Italian cavalryman, Giovanni Agnelli, gets together with several of his chums in the northern city of Turin and decides to start an automobile company. The book doesn’t begin in the same place, though; Ms. Clark is one of those authors who love setting a scene in the present, then looping back again and again, Tarantino-style, to fill in the background. This can work in some books, but here I just kept getting confused.
The company that Agnelli founded became Fiat, and Ms. Clark effectively traces its history and development through world wars and Communist-led strikes. Giovanni was a devotee and friend of Henry Ford’s, and copied Ford’s methods wherever possible. When Giovanni died in 1945, control passed to his grandson, Gianni, who promptly spent the next decade or so romping across the French Riviera with the likes of Pamela Harriman while professional managers ran things back in Turin. For the next 40 years, Gianni kept Fiat afloat, no small accomplishment.
One of the stronger themes that Ms. Clark develops is the importance of the city’s history in Fiat’s growth. Once the capital of the House of Savoy, Italy’s royal family until 1946, Turin retained Savoy’s “Prussian” values well into the 20th century. Loyalty, discipline and hard work were its hallmarks, as they became Fiat’s.
But while loyalty and discipline kept Fiat alive during Gianni Agnelli’s reign at the company — and his family in control — they did not foster much in the way of long-term creativity or ingenuity. By the last years before Gianni’s death, in 2003, Fiat’s culture had calcified. Modern methods, like the manufacture of single parts that could be used in different makes of cars, passed it by. Engineers ran the show; they made the cars, then told the marketing people how many they needed to sell. Nobody thought of asking the marketing folks what kind of car people might actually want.
As a result, Fiat churned out lots of fine little cars that not enough people wanted to buy.
Relief came, unexpectedly, in the person of Gianni’s grandson, John Elkann, who joined the board in 1997 at the age of 21. Though a neophyte, he nevertheless had the good sense to hire Mr. Marchionne, then working in Switzerland. Mr. Marchionne blasted through Fiat’s aging culture, drawing around him scores of young hotshots who dragged Fiat into the 21st century, and then rescued Chrysler.
Ms. Clark does an excellent job of showing how all this played out internally, in large part, one senses, because Mr. Marchionne himself helped guide her through it. Access, access, access.
In the prose, Ms. Clark embraces too many clichés; the phrase “last but not least” is a special favorite. But her sentences are crisp and clear, and she keeps the story moving along nicely, from Giovanni to Gianni to Marchionne. She is especially good at conjuring a sense of place, whether in the Fiat factories or the many Agnelli villas and funerals that dot the text.
All in all, “Mondo Agnelli” is worth a read, even if one remains aware there is probably room for a more ambitious, Ron Chernow-style book on the Agnellis and their empire to be published someday.
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