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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Exclusive: Why Italian business powerhouse di Montezemolo loves Abu Dhabi

Former head of Ferarri and Fiat reveals his close commercial ties to and long-held admiration for the emirate

Luca di Montezemolo. The former Ferrari chief is one of Italy's most prominent businessmen ever. Reuters
Luca di Montezemolo. The former Ferrari chief is one of Italy's most prominent businessmen ever. Reuters

Via dei Mangili is a quiet and tree-shadowed street in Rome, surrounded by magnolia adorned villas, just beneath Villa Borghese, a gargantuan green expanse filled with pines in the heart of the Eternal City.

It was once the hunting and leisure resort of 17th Century patron of the arts Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Now the area has been converted into the biggest urban park in Europe. The honk of car horns and the daily soundtrack of Rome’s crazy traffic are miles away in this secluded and silent neighbourhood called Parioli, which is the home of Italy's financial upper-class.

One of these elegant villas houses the headquarters of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the real heir to the mantle of the late tycoon Gianni Agnelli, the biggest entrepreneur in the country’s history.

Mr Montezemolo’s decades long career spans Fifa’s World Cup Italia ’90, his debut as a global manager, the Agnelli’s Fiat company itself (now FCA), where it began, then Formula 1 and the luxury car maker Ferrari and, more recently, Italo, the first private Italian high-speed train operator.

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo on the pit lane at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi in 2010. The former Ferrari chairman  is weighing up a new cultural project for the emirate. Andrew Henderson / The National
Luca Cordero di Montezemolo on the pit lane at Yas Marina Circuit. Andrew Henderson / The National

He has also served on the boards of Alitalia and Unicredit. His son Matteo runs Charme Capital Partners, a private equity fund focused on “Made in Italy” brands, where Montezemolo Senior has gathered all the most prominent Italian businessmen, from Diego Della Valle, the patron of luxury group Tod’s to Nerio Alessandri, founder of fitness company Technogym. Mr Montezemolo is also king deal maker outside of Italy. In Abu Dhabi, with Mubadala Investment Company, he helped develop the leisure potential of the capital almost 10 years ago with the launch of Yas Island’s Ferrari World theme park.

For such an admired figure, his office is in an understated ground floor location. He sits on a chair by Poltrona Frau, the Italian design brand owned by Charme and then sold to American firm Haworth four years ago, wearing an utterly elegant double-breasted grey suit. Behind him is a giant framed photograph, depicting the desert: it’s a shot from the movie Arizona, by award winning director Wim Wenders, which Mr Montezemolo bought at an auction. Shelves are filled with Renaissance art and design books, Ferrari models and a small humidor.

Scusi un secondo [hold on, please],” he says, when his mobile phone rings. He drops a call from the mayor of Anacapri, the rock-nestled town at the top of Capri Island, to focus on this exclusive interview for The National.

Mr Montezemolo, would you describe yourself as a new Marco Polo? Few Italians were familiar with the UAE before your interest in the country.

My family used to visit Dubai in the 1990s. At the time nobody in Italy knew about the city or the UAE. In 1995, I was serving as Ferrari chairman: in the same year I went to the city, because the luxury Italian car brand was opening its first show-room. The relationship with Abu Dhabi started years later, when I met [Mubadala CEO] Khaldoon Al Mubarak, and I just fell in love with the city and the culture: the desert, the islands, the Corniche, so peaceful and quiet; such a warm hospitality from the people. Sometimes, I considered moving there: to me Abu Dhabi is my second home.

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How did the Ferrari World deal come about?

Mubadala invested in Ferrari. They bought a 5 per cent stake from [merchant bank] Mediobanca. I called Khaldoon, big friend of mine and also a first-class manager, to serve on Ferrari’s board of directors. I recall the first [Formula One] GP in Abu Dhabi, which I promoted: VIPs from all over the world gathered on Yas [Island], from the King of Spain to the King of Sweden. Furthermore, as Ferrari chairman, I signed the agreement for the Ferrari World: at the time I was thinking about a MotorCity project, which Abu Dhabi accepted. I offered the Ferrari heritage and fame. When the first brick of the park was laid, there was nothing around except for the Yas Hotel and the race track. Ferrari World was,

epa02415531 An aerial view of the Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi, which opened for a preview visit for the press on 27 October 2010. EPA/FERRARI HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi. EPA

You seem to be a big fan of Abu Dhabi: in Italy you are considered a business ambassador for the Emirates. Why?

Abu Dhabi has a modern and open-minded ruling class. The planning ability of Abu Dhabi is impressive: already in 2004 I saw a mock-up of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the Royal Family started 20 years go to envision the strategy and foresee the future development. The UAE has a coherent and consistent country project. Let me just make a comparison; Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but quality of life has dramatically dropped in the last years; in Abu Dhabi quality of life has sky-rocketed instead. That’s why I consider myself a strong Abu Dhabi promoter: the city is one of the safest in the world.

All that glitters isn't always gold. Alitalia proved to be a difficult episode for Etihad and Abu Dhabi...

Alitalia is my personal regret. I hoped, and believed, Etihad [Airways] and Alitalia could co-operate [following the former’s investment in 2014]. There was a mutual interest to create an airline hub in Abu Dhabi and it would have been a great opportunity for Italy, too. Alitalia’s employees have a big responsibility in the company’s bankruptcy. The ‘No’ vote [by staff] on the labour agreement [in 2017] was a self-punishing decision. Whatever will happen to the company now, jobs will be lost because Alitalia is over-staffed and has too many employees. I want to be very clear on the Alitalia issue, [the situation was] tough. The end of the agreement with Etihad has nothing to do with Italy-UAE relationships. Italy should be grateful to Abu Dhabi, in any case. They made a huge investment in a big Italian company as the country was suffering from a severe crisis. Abu Dhabi is also a big shareholder in Unicredit, the biggest and most successful Italian bank. Again, the UAE put money into Italy when it was needed.

So what’s happening to Italy economically and financially now?

Italy really is, at the end of the day, a self-made country. Never has 'Corporate Italy' been so distant from politics than now. Italy has been prospering and creating wealth while disregarding politics and the government. The country is suffering from eternal problems such as sluggish growth, poor southern regions left behind and, more recently, the EU policy on the migrants which left the country alone in managing an overpopulation crisis in North Africa. Despite all of this, though, Italy still remains a country of extraordinary opportunities.

Where is Italian capitalism going? Foreign observers don’t see giant and charismatic people like Gianni Agnelli anymore.

Italian capitalism is undergoing an interesting mutation and transformation where sons of the founders that built economic boom in Italy after the Second World War, were more interested in finance than industry. New generations are coming up and they are back into the companies, as much as new brands are conquering international markets. Just think about strong brands and companies such as [Nutella maker] Ferrero confectionery, [brake system supplier] Brembo or [automated packaging company] Ima. Italy’s exports are hitting new record levels. When I was the Confindustria (Italian industries association) chairman I brought 400 Italian enterprises to Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, Italians have a hyper self-catastrophic attitude. Northern Italy is richer than Germany, the so called 'EU Locomotive'. Germany, also, has been for decades the first export market for the Italian manufacturing industry. Now the country is eager to open to new markets: the UAE should be one of them. Italy should invest in Abu Dhabi; and it is also important for Abu Dhabi to attract Italian investments. Historically speaking, Abu Dhabi has always had economic and political relationships with France, Germany and the UK. So that’s why Italy should increase commercial and economic links with Abu Dhabi. Political relationships also need a boost: Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are just around the corner for Italy and all these countries have strong relations with the UAE and it could play an important role in stabilizing these Arab countries and this is vital for Italy. That’s why I will continue to do all my best to improve bilateral relationships.

Former Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. The Italian is weighing up a new cultural project for Abu Dhabi. Harold Cunningham/Getty
Mr di Montezemolo is weighing up a new cultural project for Abu Dhabi. Getty

Who’s your heir? Who will the next Montezemolo be in Italy?

The Montezemolo of the future will be myself. I still feel very young in my mind and I have a lot of projects to work on in the near future. The next one, as a matter of fact, will be just in Abu Dhabi [the culture concept Casa Italia that will showcase Italy's treasures and which builds on the growing art scene in the emirate].