Mannequins stand in a window display at the United Colours Of Benetton store in Oxford Circus, London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Benetton Death Opens Succession Dilemma at Billionaire Family

(Bloomberg) -- The death of Gilberto Benetton, the mastermind of the family’s diversification beyond sweaters into infrastructures, restaurants and financial companies, poses a succession issue for the Italian billionaire clan.

Benetton co-founded the namesake clothing more than 50 years ago with his siblings Luciano and Giuliana, as well as Carlo, who passed away in July. The four had equal stakes in its main holding company, Edizione Srl, and there’s a lack of an obvious successor to Gilberto, who amassed a net worth of about $2.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The 77-year-old executive died Monday at his home in Treviso, Italy, following a brief illness, according to a statement from his family.

While his older brother Luciano, 83, has always been directly involved with Benetton Group and returned last year at the helm of the fashion chain to revamp its struggling business, Gilberto was the main architect of the family’s expansion beyond the clothing industry. He helped create Edizione, which controls investments in highway operator Atlantia SpA, and Autogrill SpA, which runs roadside rest-stop eateries.

Edizione, which had a net asset value of 12 billion euros ($14 billion) at the end of June, is facing one of its most difficult moments. After a bridge its Atlantia unit operates in Genoa collapsed and killed more than 40 people, the family’s stake in the company lost more than 2 billion euros of value.

While the Benettons already opted in the last few years for non-family members such as former Telecom Italia Chief Executive Officer Marco Patuano to run Edizione, Gilberto was still the family’s most important voice in deciding investments and strategy. He served as Edizione’s vice chairman under Chairman Fabio Cerchiai.

“He was a man of extraordinary value and rare entrepreneurial vision,” Patuano and Cerchiai said in a statement. “His capacity to foresee economic and social developments guided Edizione into its most important strategic choices."

Now the family may be discussing who should succeed Gilberto. Luciano’s son Alessandro has been the prominent figure of the second generation and is well-known among investors. Still, the 54-year-old executive left the clothing company in 2014 and is now fully dedicated to his own private equity fund 21 Partners. Gilberto’s daughter Sabrina is now expected to take his place in Edizione’s board.

In recent years, Gilberto had been leaning to changing the role of family members to one of supervisors rather than managers. He had indicated that in the future, the holding company should operate more like a sovereign wealth fund.

The family holding vehicle also owns 3 percent of Italy’s biggest insurer Assicurazioni Generali SpA and a 2 percent of Mediobanca SpA, the country’s largest listed investment bank. In July, Edizione bought the biggest single stake in Spanish mobile-phone tower operator Cellnex.

Gilberto was also a prominent figure in Italy’s sport business. He transformed his home-town Treviso into a sort of sport capital in the 1990s when Benetton-backed teams won several championships in rugby, volley and basketball. The family is currently now concentrating on its rugby team, which plays in the Pro 14 tournament and the European Rugby Championship.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.