A few years ago, sorting out the financial spaghetti that made up the empire of the industrialist and entrepreneur Carlo de Benedetti was no easy exercise. De Benedetti then was a rich and active businessman, and Cir, the holding company which he controlled, had dozens of investments in its own right. Of these, the main trading vehicle was the computer company Olivetti Spa, and this too had many investments. It even owned a venture capital company with dozens of holdings spanning the European continent. Today, the investigation is more straightforward. There is still a lot of financial spaghetti, but now the question is who owns what is left? This is a good question, since to this day Olivetti remains a tangled knot of intertwined companies with many common investors. And, of course, there are companies – such as the Olivetti PC company – which bear the name but are not owned by Olivetti at all. Olivetti was once the largest, European-owned computer manufacturer and boasted that it was the only one making profits. Now, its PC business is owned by Piedmont, a Swiss-registered company controlled by a London-based but American born businessman, Ed Gottesmann. Then last month, in a highly complex deal, Olivetti sold a substantial part of its most promising business, mobile and fixed telecommunications services, to Mannesmann of Germany. Some observers believe that Mannesmann ultimately plans to increase its stake to more than 50%, but that it feels uneasy about doing so until European laws on foreign ownership of telecommunications services are fully liberalised. This leaves the rump of Olivetti: Olsy, a computer services and systems integration company. Although Olivetti will not officially confirm it, a chunk of this may soon be sold to the US services company Wang, or to some other US services giant. The Mannesmann deal represented a substantial dilution for Olivetti in Omnitel, its highly successful mobile communications company, but fund managers represented on the Milan stock exchange were ecstatic. Along with a $600m rights issue, the $1.3bn investment means that Olivetti’s massive debt has all been wiped out. Managing director Roberto Colaninno can now begin the job of working out how to put the company back on the world map – presumably as a telecommunications company. Meanwhile, de Benedetti remains true to form. In spite of being ousted last year as chief executive, he is claiming the credit for the Mannesmann deal. And what will he do next? It’s all in my new book, he says.
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