Italian white-goods tycoon who led Indesit to record profits
VITTORIO MERLONI, who has died aged 83, transformed his small family domestic appliance company into Indesit, a multinational giant competing with Bosch and Electrolux.
Under Vittorio’s father Aristide, the family business had been a patriarchal affair which provided many of the jobs in small towns in the Marche region of Italy. It had consisted of three firms – and Aristide had three sons. When Aristide died in 1970, one took over the heating and sanitaryproducts business, another the mechanical-engineering division. Vittorio got the white goods business, which he renamed Merloni Elettrodomestici in 1975.
The domestic appliance market went through a bad spell from the late 1980s. But while many of its rivals, including Zanussi, went under or were taken over, Merloni Elettrodomestici survived and grew, both organically and through takeovers.
The biggest gamble was the acquisition of Indesit, which in 1985 was a far bigger operation than Merloni Elettrodomestici. Crucially, it gave Merloni the springboard to push abroad.
Listed on the Milan stock exchange in 1987, Merloni Elettrodomestici went on to buy France’s Scholte in 1989, Stinol, Russia’s top brand, in 1999, and the Peterboroughbased General Domestic Appliances in 2001, an acquisition which gave Merloni control of the Hotpoint, Creda and Cannon brands – and 28 per cent of the UK white goods market. In 2005 he changed the company name to Indesit, its best known brand. In 2007 Indesit’s revenues reached a record €3.4 billion.
But acquisition was only part of the story. Merloni succeeded by using a few strong brands to keep its product range manageable and by investing heavily in research and development, including pioneering the use of software in domestic appliances. Its washing machine plant at Caserta, near Naples, was the most efficient in Europe. “The family control is a big advantage as we don’t have to think of dividends year by year but can look at it from the point of view of competitiveness tomorrow,” Merloni said in 2005. “So we invest 85 per cent of our cashflow back into the company. Others don’t.”
Merloni retired from the chairmanship of Indesit in 2010, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and in the past decade the company has struggled with the rise of cheaper manufacturers from China and the weakness of the Italian economy. In 2014 the family’s 60 per cent stake in Indesit was sold to Whirlpool, its main US competitor, for approximately €768 million.
The youngest of three sons, Vittorio Merloni was born on April 30 1933, three years after his father, Aristide, had founded Industrie Merloni in Albacina, a small village in the Marche region of central Italy. The business made weighing scales and later diversified into liquid gas cylinders and hot water heaters.
After taking a degree in Economics and Commerce from the University of Perugia, Vittorio joined the family business as a sales manager. When in 1960 the Ariston brand was created and the company began to produce electrical domestic appliances, Vittorio managed the new business.
Short, lean, bespectacled and courteous in manner, Merloni was a surprisingly hesitant figure for a business tycoon, but was never shy of acquiring what he liked, be it companies or personal possessions. As well as houses in Milan, Rome, Sardinia, New York Fabriano and Mayfair, he owned Testarossa Ferraris, a Bentley and, inevitably, a palatial yacht.
In the 1980s he chaired the Italian industrial association Confindustria, and he was involved in many social causes, with an emphasis on education. Appointed a Cavaliere del
lavoro in 1984, he was appointed honorary CBE in 2003.
He is survived by his wife, Franca, and by their two sons and two daughters.
Merloni: surprisingly hesitant