In the history of my family, the figure of Giovanni Agnelli, Il Senatore, is a fundamentally important one: at the end of the nineteenth century he, along with others, founded a car factory that would change our destiny and that of many other people.

Establishing the Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Fiat) factory was not, in itself, an exceptional event. In those years many tried to do something similar. Between 1898 and 1908, 47 car factories were founded in Turin, 32 in Milan, 8 in Rome and 5 in Genoa. It was a turbulent time; the most recent parallel is perhaps the invention of the Internet twenty years ago. In much the same way, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a new technology promised to change the world, revolutionizing the way we live, work and interact with others.

But few, very few entrepreneurs, have stood the test of time.

Today, a hundred and fifty years after his birth, I’ve been asking myself what made Giovanni Agnelli “the Founder” different? What distinguished him from other courageous but ultimately more transient pioneers?

To find the answer, I think it’s necessary to look beyond the technical competence and passion for car racing of this young cavalry officer who had given up a military career to embark on an exciting but uncertain business venture. What perhaps distinguished him most was the ambition that he demonstrated in mapping out a future for his company in America. This was not the America of impressive skyscrapers and bustling urban centres, but the America of huge factories, that was applying technological ingenuity and new ways of organizing work, ushering in the age of mass car production. These were vehicles for everyone, not just those who could afford luxury cars laboured over by craftsmen. Giovanni Agnelli’s decision to “do as Ford does” made Fiat’s production more efficient and made its cars more affordable, which was the means as well as the product of an industrial and economic development of enormous scope.

Looking through the photographs that have been preserved in the Fiat Historic Centre for over a century, many of which are shared in this book, another unique aspect of Fiat emerges. From the very beginning, Giovanni Agnelli understood that the success of his business depended on being present in markets around the world: both markets close to home, like France, England and Egypt, and those further away, from America and Brazil to the Asian continent. This was a brave vision: not content with just his national market, Giovanni Agnelli wanted to take his cars to the world.

If the founding of Fiat is an exciting entrepreneurial story, the stability and longevity of the company and of our family history derive from a series of decisions that the Founder, later a Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, took some thirty years later. In 1927, Giovanni Agnelli created the Istituto Finanziario Industriale, or ifi which brought a multiplicity of interests he owned – including Cinzano, Società Idroelettrica Piemontese (sip), sava, Sestriere, etc. – under a single corporate umbrella. With ifi, the Founder created a diversified holding company, which was stronger than the sum of its member companies while at the same time allowing his successors to maintain the ownership of these assets.

With ifi Giovanni Agnelli also made concrete a fundamental principle that I think is still current: the distinction between managers chosen on merit to operate the companies with professionalism and competence, and the family, which sets the direction and long-term objectives. This balance between business and family is the secret to the long-term stability of a family-controlled company. To endure generation after generation, the most important challenge is to make these two worlds coexist in harmony; even in this the Founder proved visionary.

Giovanni Agnelli proved himself also generous in establishing solid relationships within the communities where his businesses operated. Aware of the social responsibility that every entrepreneur assumes, he founded philanthropic institutions in the fields of social assistance, sport and the arts.

Giovanni Agnelli’s personal relationship with Don Bosco laid the foundation for a partnership that is still alive and strong, and which allows the worlds of Fiat and the Salesians to work together in many countries through various initiatives in education and vocational training. Solidarity and attention to the social dimension of work were the values with which the Senator endowed the Edoardo and Virginia Agnelli Foundation, cited in his will, and which he entrusted to his heirs.

Today, that institution is part of the Agnelli Foundation and its values are still at the centre of the vision that continues to inspire our family, with a focus on the world of education.

To us, the heirs of a precious and unique entrepreneurial and family history, falls the task of continuing what Giovanni Agnelli began. His example will be our guide, but even more important is the admonition that he left for future generations: “Above all we must always look to the future, foresee the future of new inventions, be unafraid of the new, delete from our vocabulary the word ‘impossible’.”

With these words we end this book that we dedicate to the Founder on the 150th anniversary of his birth. It is by shining a light on the strength and innovative spirit of Giovanni Agnelli that our family wants to remember him, looking ahead to the years and the generations to come.

John Elkann