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Raul Gardini

Raul Gardini, the flamboyant Italian business magnate and yachtsman, was for a time a captain without a crew. When a …

Raul Gardini, the flamboyant Italian business magnate and yachtsman, was for a time a captain without a crew. When a surprise revolt by members of the Ferruzzi family deposed him as head of their diversified agribusiness and chemical holding company last June, observers questioned when he would begin to rebuild his empire.

Apparently, that time has come: Gardini has been rebuilding his team as head of Gardini srl, a fledgling enterprise that comprises Gardini, his son, his bodyguard, his long-time secretary, and a handful of other Gardini loyalists. More recently, he purchased control of three French food companies and acquired a minority holding in a French trading house. The tab for the transaction, to be paid by Gardini and partners: 1.65 billion French francs ($304.4 million).

Under the agreement, Gardini acquired a stake in trading house Cie. Financiere Sucres et Denrees, known as Sucden. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Gardini is expected to invest in the Sucden operations along with his French partner, Jean-Marc Vernes. By allying himself with Vernes, head of Paris-based Banque Vernes, Gardini will link into the French banker’s formidable array of industrial and financial contacts.

During the 1980s, Gardini transformed the Ferruzzi family’s sleepy grain trading company into a multinational conglomerate. But last year, Ferruzzi heirs led by Arturo-son of family patriarch Serafino-thwarted Gardini’s plan to gain control of the Ferruzzi group’s key holding company.

In the scuffle, Gardini and his son, Ivan, were sacked. But the businessman and his wife, Idina-a Ferruzzi heiress and sister of Arturo-walked away with a cool 505 billion lire ($384.9 million) in return for Idina’s 23 percent stake in the holding company. Late last summer, Gardini used part of the windfall to buy 4.54 percent of Societe Centrale d’Investissements, a French investment company headed by French ally Vernes. He has options to increase that holding.

At one point deemed among Italy’s three most powerful businessmen, along with Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat and Carlo De Benedetti of Olivetti, Gardini fought a losing, two-year battle with the government for control of the Enimont S.p.A. chemical venture.

“If Gardini had been a different person, perhaps he now would have the affectionate backing of shareholders ready to raise their voices in his defense,” wrote Francesco Villani in a recent issue of Tendenze Borse (Market Trends), an Italian business magazine. “But he is not a man to seek defenders. For good or for bad, he is a man of character.”

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