For the first time ever, U.S. autoworkers are striking against all three members of the “Big Three” auto corporations: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler). Among other demands, they are fighting for the elimination of wage and benefit tiers, major wage increases and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments.
But they’re also fighting for something bigger. A day before the strike began, United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain told members that the strike would be about more than bread-and-butter issues. Autoworkers would be taking on the power of the billionaire class.
“I’m at peace with the decision to strike if we have to because I know that we are on the right side in this battle,” said Fain. “It’s the battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class against everyone else.”
When it comes to Stellantis, Fain’s framing of the autoworkers’ fight as one against billionaire power is especially resonant. Stellantis reported an astounding $12.1 billion in profits for the first half of 2023 — a new company record, it claimed. Stellantis is spending billions on stock buybacks, all while it refuses to meet autoworkers’ demands.
But amid all the coverage of the auto strike, a major fact about who striking Stellantis workers are pitted against at the company has gone almost entirely unmentioned.
John Elkann: The Power Behind Stellantis
The most powerful person at Stellantis is a billionaire named John Elkann.
Elkann is the heir to Italy’s prominent Agnelli family business dynasty, which long owned the Fiat auto empire that is now part of Stellantis. Elkann owns racing yachts and is married into royalty. He sits on the board of prestigious art museums and socializes with everyone from Jeff Bezos to Barack Obama. He and his family own famous soccer and race car clubs. He is a member of the highest circles of the global corporate elite.
Elkann is also the chairman and executive director of Stellantis and the most powerful figure overseeing the company’s management and strategic direction. He doesn’t just have a major governing role at the auto giant — his family’s holding company is the top shareholder of Stellantis.
Elkann is the CEO of Exor, the Dutch-based holding company through which he manages his billionaire family’s vast global corporate empire, of which Stellantis is a core pillar. Exor has a $33 billion net asset value. It ranks number 317 of the Fortune Global 500 list of top companies worldwide.
According to Stellantis’s most recent annual report, Exor has a 13.99 percent stake in the auto company as of December 31, 2022. Exor’s website states that it has “14.2% of economic and voting rights” at Stellantis as of August 31, 2023. Exor’s website also states that it is the “single largest shareholder” of Stellantis. Its top stake in Stellantis is more than double the second-largest stake of 6.98 percent, which is held by Peugeot Invest.
Elkann’s position atop Exor, overseeing his family’s business empire, rests upon a complex corporate hierarchy that smacks of a storyline out of the hit show Succession.
According to Reuters, John Elkann has a 60 percent share in a company called Dicembre, and his siblings Lapo and Ginevra both have 20 percent stakes. According to Fortune, Dicembre “sits at the top of the Agnellis’ chain of investments.”
Dicembre, in turn, has a 38 percent stake in a private vehicle called Giovanni Agnelli B.V., which has about 100 shareholders who represent around 200 living descendants of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat. Elkann has also served as chairman of Giovanni Agnelli B.V., though he recently stepped down from that position because of “his desire to concentrate on operational roles” in the family business empire.
Dicembre’s 38 percent stake in Giovanni Agnelli B.V. is the largest stake in that vehicle. In turn, Giovanni Agnelli B.V. is the largest shareholder in Exor, with a 53.2 percent ownership of company shares and control of 86.3 percent of voting rights in the company.
In sum, Elkann’s power rests on the fact that he was the “handpicked successor” to lead his family dynasty and has a majority stake in the vehicle Dicembre, which in turn dominates another vehicle, Giovanni Agnelli B.V., that has the controlling stake in Exor, which is the top shareholder at Stellantis.
All told, Elkann doesn’t just directly oversee the board of Stellantis through his chairman position. He and his family are also the company’s top shareholder, and Elkann directly manages their company stake through his leadership roles at both Exor and Stellanis.
Scion to a Billionaire Family Dynasty
According to Forbes, Elkann has a personal net worth of $1.7 billion. His power and wealth come from his position as the leading heir of the super-wealthy Agnelli family dynasty. Elkann is the grandson of the late family patriarch, Gianni Agnelli, one of the most powerful figures in postwar Italy.
The Agnellis may be Italy’s most famous and iconic family. They have been called “Italy’s de facto royals” and “the closest thing Italy has to a royal family.” They are one of Europe’s wealthiest families. John Elkann was groomed as the family’s “ultimate heir” at Fiat and the person destined to take over leadership of the family’s business empire.
Over the past decade, Elkann moved from his power base in Fiat to his leading role in Stellantis.
In 2014, Fiat completed its acquisition of Chrysler, becoming Fiat Chrysler. Elkann served as Fiat Chrysler’s chairman. Then in 2021, Fiat Chrysler completed a merger with French auto giant PSA to create Stellantis, then the world’s fourth-largest carmaker. Elkann became Stellantis’s chairman, while PSA’s CEO, Carlos Tavares, became Stellantis’s CEO.
In sum, Stellantis today is one of the Big Three auto corporations by way of Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler and then Fiat Chrysler’s merger with the French PSA Group to become Stellantis. Elkann oversaw both Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler and as well as creation of Stellantis.
Elkann oversees the Agnelli family’s huge business through his position as CEO of Exor. According to Exor’s website, their portfolio includes 17 companies and other business operations across numerous industries.
Elkann and Exor are also media giants. Exor’s ownership of media companies includes The Economist and GEDI Gruppo Editoriale, which calls itself “the leading Italian media group.” Elkann also serves as GEDI’s chairman. Politico once called Elkann “the new Italian crown prince of European media.”
A Powerful Member of the Global Corporate Elite
Elkann is a major figure within the global corporate elite, with ties to powerful billionaires, top world leaders and prestigious art museums and sports clubs. He and his family live lives of luxury, owning yachts, lavish estates and invaluable works of art.
Elkann is widely depicted in the media as a preeminent member of the corporate class. He socializes with Jeff Bezos. He holds interviews with Elon Musk. He shares smiles with Mark Zuckerberg. He serves on the International Council of JPMorgan Chase alongside Jamie Dimon and Henry Kissinger.
World leaders make a point to meet with Elkann. Barack Obama sought him out on a 2014 trip to Italy, where they enjoyed dinner together. He meets with figures like Chinese President Xi Jinping and top European leaders. He hosts Swedish monarchs.
Elkann himself is married — literally — to an Italian princess, Lavinia Borromeo. According to one report, their 2004 wedding on the luxurious Borromean Islands was “the wedding of the decade,” with the wedding reception taking place at Borromeo’s family’s “most famous palace.” Guests included Henry Kissinger and the late billionaire and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Through Exor, Elkann and his family own the Juventus Football Club in Italy. According to Exor’s website, it holds “63.8% of economic rights” and “77.9% of voting rights” over the club.
Juventus is no ordinary soccer franchise. The New York Times called the club a “perennial Italian champion.” It is one of the world’s most prestigious soccer clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best footballers in the world, played for Juventus from 2018 to 2021.
As the head of Exor, Elkann is depicted in the media as a public face of Juventus’s ownership. His family has owned the club for a full century. He regularly attends matches. The club’s top corporate partner is Jeep, owned by Stellantis.
Along with soccer, Elkann also helps oversee Scuderia Ferrari, one of the world’s most famous car racing teams. It is a Formula 1 racing club that races at global Grand Prix races. The club is part of the Ferrari business empire that Exor owns and Elkann chairs. Just a few months ago, in June, Elkann celebrated Ferrari’s AF Course team’s victory in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
Elkann is a prominent figure within the arts scene of the super-elite. He is a member of the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the most prestigious art museums in the world. MoMA’s board is populated by numerous other corporate elites, including Wall Street billionaires like Steven Cohen, Daniel Och and Leon Black.
The corporate representatives on the boards of elite museums have been the focus of disruptive protest actions. For example, protesters have recently taken action at MoMA against its board chair, Marie-Josée Kravis, whose husband, Henry Kravis, is a private equity billionaire whose firm, KKR, has a controlling stake in the massive Coastal Gaslink Pipeline being built in Canada.
Elkann and his wife have also attended the most exclusive art galas in the world, including the 2023 Met Gala. Elkann’s family has a large and expensive art collection that includes works by Picasso, Renoir and Matisse. The family also owns lush, storied estates like Villar Perosa, where Elkann famously hosts soccer games.
Defending High CEO Pay
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares is often depicted as the face of the company. His exorbitant CEO pay has come under criticism from the UAW. In a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the union blasted Tavares’s 2022 pay of $24.8 million, stating that “A Stellantis ‘Temp’ Making $15.78/hr would have to work 755 years to match his pay.”
As Stellantis board chairman, it is Elkann who oversees Tavares’s pay. And Elkann has had no qualms about defending high CEO pay at Stellantis.
For example, Stellantis shareholders revolted against the huge pay package of Tavares in 2022. They even passed a nonbinding 52 percent vote opposing the company’s pay plan.
But Elkann defended the huge pay plan. “It is our conviction as a board that in a meritocracy, rewarding on the basis of performance criteria is a fundamental element of our policy,” he told shareholders. He emphasized that the shareholder vote was only a “recommendation.”
Stellantis Workers Versus Billionaire Yacht Owners
Elkann is an avid yachtsman. According to the luxury magazine, Lux, Elkann owns a 70-foot Maserati yacht. Indeed, his family had long owned the Maserati brand, which is now part of Stellantis. Elkann’s Maserati yacht is used by an elite team of sailors who take part in races and try to break world records. Elkann himself sometimes sails with them as a crew member. Elkann also takes part in races of expensive antique cars in Italy.
John Elkann’s brother, Lapo Elkann, is a highly visible member of the global elite. Vanity Fair published an entire profile on him. Lapo owns lush homes and fancy watches. One video on YouTube depicts his “Life of Luxury” filled with helicopters and private planes. He’s also seen his share of scandals. Lapo says his brother John Elkann is his “best friend.”
As part of the family dynasty, and with a 20 percent stake in Dicembre, which ultimately controls Exor through its ownership chain, Lapo’s lavish lifestyle in part rests upon Stellantis profits.
As Elkann and his quasi-dynastic billionaire family sail the high seas on their yachts for pleasure, Stellantis is shuttering factories.
As Elkann attends fancy art galas and soccer matches and enjoys a family fortune that he inherited, Stellantis autoworkers are worked to the bone.
As Elkann oversees Stellantis’s reporting of record profits that autoworkers produced, he chooses billions in stock buybacks over meeting autoworker demands. Those stock buybacks further enrich the company’s biggest shareholders: John Elkann and the Agnellis.
Stellantis’s workers are turning out en masse in the fight of their lives. When UAW President Shawn Fain speaks of the billionaire class that autoworkers are up against, he’s talking about people like John Elkann and his ultra-wealthy family dynasty.
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