Warren Buffett once said the best business is a toll booth: you make a single investment, to build a road, then sit back and collect. It is a maxim with which Giovanni Castellucci, chief executive of the world’s biggest motorway operator Atlantia, will be warily familiar.
For 17 years, Mr Castellucci was chief of Autostrade Per L’Italia, Atlantia’s subsidiary, which operates half of Italy’s motorways. But the toll road business is not without risk, as Mr Castellucci discovered on August 14 2018, when the Morandi motorway bridge in Genoa collapsed, leaving 43 people dead.
In the aftermath, Italy’s populist coalition blamed the company and called for the nationalisation of the motorways. This week financial police raided Autostrade’s offices after the Financial Times revealed the existence of an internal report into the company’s maintenance of the bridge. In a sprawling investigation, Mr Castellucci is one of more than 70 suspects.
Under pressure from the government and hopeful of a negotiated truce on the motorway concessions, Mr Castellucci, now chief of Atlantia, has positioned the group to commit to a bold undertaking: the rescue of troubled national airline Alitalia, with an estimated investment of €300m. Four rescue plans for Alitalia mounted in the past 12 years have failed. But the calculated move could help rehabilitate Atlantia’s image in Italy and his own.
The spotlight on Mr Castellucci since Genoa will have been challenging. Associates say he loathes networking, and shuns Rome’s high society.
Mr Castellucci prefers to spend time with his wife Francesca, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he has two adult children. She serves as first mate, crew and cook on their frequent sailing trips. He was part of the Italian national team sailing dinghies as a student, and the sport inspired his first company at the age of 18: making and selling sails from his mother’s living room.
Mr Castellucci, an engineering graduate, first impressed Atlantia’s dominant shareholder, the Benetton family, when he advised them on their supermarkets business. He made the jump from consultancy to boardroom, age 40, becoming chief of pastamaker Barilla, but left a year later when the company split, and joined Autostrade.
Working 12 to 13 hour days at Atlantia’s Rome headquarters, often without stopping for lunch — unheard of in Italy — his life is all about tarmac, say colleagues. “He is totally business-orientated and dedicated to the company,” said one business associate. “He doesn’t do small talk — it’s all work.”
His colleagues often saw him picking up cigarette butts outside Rome’s Fiumicino airport, which is owned by Atlantia. Depending on one’s view, he is either tirelessly committed to the cause or is a micromanaging obsessive.
The company’s takeover of Spanish rival Abertis in 2018, to become the largest motorway operator globally, was driven by Mr Castellucci’s empire-building aspirations, say insiders. It came 12 years after Abertis failed to take over Atlantia, a source of satisfaction for Mr Castellucci.
His tough negotiating stance may have paid dividends for Atlantia. According to colleagues, it was Mr Castellucci who negotiated a 2007 contract that would force the government to pay Autostrade €20bn if it revokes the concession. It provided for motorway tariffs to rise on average 2 per cent annually, with the licence stretching on until 2038.
Mr Castellucci was in his vegetable garden in Tuscany on August 14 when a colleague phoned from Genoa. In the days that followed, he came under fire for the company’s slow response and perceived failure to take responsibility for the bridge disaster.
But Marco Bucci, the mayor of Genoa, says Mr Castellucci deserves more credit. “He arrived after only about two hours. He was clearly affected by the seriousness of the accident. I don’t know whether Autostrade was at fault, but on that day we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”
Under Mr Castellucci, Autostrade has thrown millions at reconstruction efforts. Mr Castellucci gave his 2018 bonus towards scholarships for victims and their families.
As recently as last month Luigi Di Maio, the Italian deputy prime minister, continued to rail against Atlantia’s involvement in the Alitalia rescue, claiming “the planes would crash”, but he has now been forced into an embarrassing U-turn.
As owner of Fiumicino airport, Alitalia’s hub, Atlantia has an interest in ensuring the airline’s survival. But saving the carrier is also an act of redemption, helping to insulate Atlantia from further political attack.
Mr Castellucci’s own redemption may not be part of the package. One source close to the government said Autostrade could retain the concession if it fires some managers and lowers tariffs. The source did not deny that Mr Castellucci was one of the desired scalps.
This year Mr Castellucci will forgo his usual yachting holiday to write a new business plan for Alitalia, according to aides. He hopes to make it break even, a Herculean task, while retaining his own place in the ranks. Neither is an easy task.
Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini
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