TURIN - The shop manager probably never looked twice at the new lathe operator who joined Comau, Fiat's robot-making subsidiary, in the summer of 1982. The young man said his name was Giovanni Rossi.
In reality, the man getting his first taste of blue-collar life was Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, heir apparent to the Fiat empire. He died at age 33 on 13 December of a rare form of intestinal cancer.
Giovanni was scheduled to become chairman of Fiat SpA next year. He led a turnaround of Fiat's Piaggio motorcycle group and was the only Agnelli family member on the Fiat SpA board.
He was called Giovannino - though he hated the nickname - to avoid confusion with his 76-year-old uncle Giovanni, who ran Fiat for over 40 years and is now honorary chairman. Young Giovanni is the son of Umberto Agnelli, 63, and his first wife, Antonella Bechi Piaggio.
The cancer struck suddenly. Agnelli announced in April that he would undergo treatment at New York's Sloan-Kettering Memorial Center. He returned home to Italy in August, incurable. His last public appearance was on 10 December at a football game at Turin's Delle Alpi stadium. He looked thinner but not unwell.
His death re-opens the question of who will be the next chairman of Fiat SpA, Italy biggest industrial group. The current chairman, 74-year-old Cesare Romiti, retires in June.
Agnelli joined Piaggio in 1987 after graduating from Brown University in the USA. Piaggio had been in his mother's family before it became part of Fiat. His first position was as assistant to managing director Gustavo De Negri. In 1991, at 27, he was sent to Spain to head the recovery of Piaggio's Motovespa SA subsidiary.
Later he was named president and managing director of Piaggio Veicoli Europei SpA, the Piaggio holding company, based in Pontedera, near Pisa, Tuscany. He helped rebuild the loss-making company's fortunes. Piaggio earned a net profit of L15 billion ($8.6 million) in 1996 on sales of L2.1 trillion.
'The death of Giovanni Agnelli is a great loss to the nation,' said Sergio D'Antoni, leader of Italy's second biggest trade union, CISL. 'Even in his short life, he showed signs of great managerial skills.'
Young Agnelli cultivated a casual air. He wore his shirt cuffs unbuttoned and he rode to work on a scooter.
He was handsome and athletic, and he was considered one of the world's most eligible bachelors before his marriage in 1996 to Avery Frances Howe, an architect with American and British citizenship. He became a father on 16 September. His daughter was named Virginia Asia, after his grandmother and his love for Asia.
His life was free of scandal. Italian newspapers took an interest in Agnelli's private life only twice - when he appeared in a poster promoting military service, and when he crashed a brand new Ferrari 456Gt lent to him by his uncle Giovanni.
Agnelli spent long days in the office, and even delayed his honeymoon to India for three months to finish a project, but his outside interests were wide. He was a golfer, skier and tennis player, and he loved the poetry of Byron.
Agnelli was also an enthusiastic e-mail correspondent, particularly toward the end of his illness, when talking became difficult.
In April, when he announced his condition, he said, 'after having heard so much about teleconferencing, I'm now personally trying it.'