Italy's De Benedetti dynasty is making a comeback. High-flying corporate raider Carlo De Benedetti, dubbed "the engineer," once ranked as a titan of Italian industry alongside Gianni Agnelli. But the man who turned typewriter maker Olivetti into Italy's high-tech wonder got deep into debt and in way over his head in the late 1990s. So he called in his son Rodolfo, a cautious manager, and gave him a mandate to restructure the family holdings. "We began slimming down and limiting our portfolio to businesses where we had control," recalls Rodolfo, now 43.
The crash diet worked, and today the De Benedetti dynasty, with Carlo as paterfamilias and Rodolfo as day-to-day manager, is staging a quiet comeback. Rodolfo has no high-tech pretensions. Instead he is churning out profits in a decidedly old-line business -- power. Five years ago, De Benedetti created a company called Energia to profit from the liberalization of Italy's energy sector. Today Energia ranks No. 5 in power generation and trading in its home market, with over $1 billion in annual revenues. Emboldened by his success, De Benedetti is said by industry insiders to be readying a bid for a stake in Edison, Italy's No. 2 electric utility. "If they buy into Edison, the De Benedettis will once again emerge as top actors on the scene," says Ugo Bertone, author of two books on Italy's industrial clans.
The revival has been a long time coming. After shareholders ousted Carlo from the chairmanship of Olivetti in 1996, Rodolfo persuaded Dad to sell off his remaining stake in the IT company. Then the onetime Lehman Brothers (LEH) banker set out to restructure the family holding company, Compagnie Industriali Riunite (CIR). He sold off noncore businesses and did away with such practices as issuing nonvoting shares.
The market has rewarded his efforts. CIR's share price has shot up 80% in the past two years. (The De Benedetti clan retains a 47% share.) The company, now focused on media and publishing, auto parts, and power, will post a profit of $89 million in 2004, a nearly 10% increase over last year, on revenues of $3.8 billion, estimates Milan brokerage Banca Akros.
The eldest of Carlo's three sons, Rodolfo is described as a workaholic who shuns the limelight. That's in contrast to his father and younger brother Marco, the boss of Telecom Italia Mobile (TI). "Rodolfo goes home for lunch, while Carlo's style was more to lunch in London and have dinner in New York," says a former Olivetti manager. Rodolfo hasn't been shy about wielding political influence, though. CIR-controlled La Repubblica, a leading Italian daily, has been unsparing in its criticism of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The De Benedettis have shown they can reinvent themselves time and time again. In 1999, when the Italian power market began opening up, Rodolfo set up Energia in partnership with Austrian electric company Verbund. Energia began importing power from Austria and reselling it at higher Italian prices. It's doing the same with natural gas from Libya and Norway. "The timing was right, the people were good, and we needed zero assets," Rodolfo says. Euromobiliare SIM, a Milan brokerage, projects Energia will log a profit of $20.1 million this year, on revenues of $1.3 billion.
Now Energia is producing power as well as selling it. In 2002, it bought old power plants valued at $1.1 billion from former monopoly Enel and is spending an additional $1 billion to retool them. It is also building a new plant in southern Italy and has plans for three more.
But it's the possibility of an Edison deal that has Italians buzzing about a De Benedetti resurgence. Rodolfo won't comment, but a banker close to the De Benedettis confirms their interest in the $8 billion company. An opportunity could come as early as next spring, when a complicated transaction involving Electricité de France, a big shareholder in Edison, could put a big block of Edison shares in play. When Carlo De Benedetti recently hosted a dinner for France's Finance Minister, he also invited two leading Italian bankers and a representative of Fiat, currently Edison's largest shareholder, spurring speculation that negotiations are in progress. Dealmaking is still in the De Benedettis' blood.
By Maureen Kline in Milan