In the darkest hour of italy’s modern banking system the Catholic banker Roberto Calvi was found dead, hanging under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982.
While newspaper headlines around the world aired suspicions that he was murdered by the Sicilian mafia, Italy’s Treasury made a call to a little known professor in the northern Italian industrial town of Brescia.
Giovanni Bazoli, who was then 49, taught public law. He also sat on the board of a local bank. Treasury minister Beniamino Andreatta asked him to take over Banco Ambrosiano, the bank closely linked to the Vatican that had been brought near to bankruptcy by Calvi.
Few could have imagined the result. Fired by what Mr Bazoli describes as a personal mission to restore the reputation of Catholic banking, he would prove to be Italy’s most consummate dealmaker. From the ashes of the renamed Nuovo Banco Ambrosiano, he built Italy’s largest retail bank by assets: Intesa Sanpaolo.
“I didn’t think I was up to it but Andreatta, a great man, said: ‘I am disappointed, I thought you were the man to do it.’ And so I accepted,” he recalls at the labyrinthine Milanese palace that houses the headquarters of Intesa Sanpaolo.
Lean and with an upright poise that hints at his reputation as an athlete in his younger days, Mr Bazoli has spent three decades creating Italy’s largest banking group, with 4,200 branches from Sicily to Lombardy.
Devoutly Catholic with allegiances to Italy’s political centre-left and close community ties (he travels home each night to Brescia), the 81-year old is a riposte to the idea that modern bankers are primarily focused on spreadsheets.
For Mr Bazoli, the banking business is about relationships, defending such an approach against claims it stifles the Italian economy.
“I have a conviction that has been strengthened with the growth of experience and age, which is that personal relationships are the most important values of our life,” he says in a meeting room in which chandeliers adorn the ceiling and vast 19th-century Italian impressionist paintings cover the faded yellow walls.
“Today it is accepted public opinion that the principal cause of the failures of the Italian economic and financial system is so-called ‘relationship capitalism’. Instead, I think we need to consider that the story of every company – like that of every social group, every family and every nation – is always a story of relationships.”
In turning round Nuovo Banco Ambrosiano, Mr Bazoli refused to lay off any of its employees, considering them also to be victims of Calvi. In a series of mergers, he never undertook a hostile deal. Ahead of European banking stress tests later this year, Intesa Sanpaolo is now Italy’s most securely capitalised bank. It has also been a huge donor to the arts.
Mr Bazoli’s public persona is often presented as chilly and aloof. In person, he is self-effacing, however.
He describes Enrico Cuccia, who founded the powerful Milanese investment bank Mediobanca and frequently skirmished with Mr Bazoli over deals, as his “best enemy”.
Silvio Berlusconi, against whom he was briefly encouraged to stand in the general election of 1999, “is always charming in person – he is a show business guy”, he says, apparently without irony.
However, he deflects many questions he would rather not answer, such as how the banking sector in Italy might be pushed to consolidate further by the European stress tests.
Asked about his M&A prowess, he says he discovered in himself a great capacity to mediate. Others say that he was fair in his dealings. But despite his success in forging alliances his methods have, as he notes, become divisive.
In particular, he defends the system of banking foundations, the controversial charitable groups that are the main shareholders of Intesa Sanpaolo and most Italian banks.
The foundations are accused of fostering a culture of crony capitalism and of being too provincial in outlook.
Mr Bazoli points out that they recapitalised the Italian system over recent years when the state could not afford to do so.
“We’re often told that the foundations should not exist as shareholders of Italy’s banks. That’s as it may be but this should be an orderly transition to high-quality institutional investors. That will take time and we need to earn the support of these new investors,” he says.
Last week, US fund manager BlackRock became Intesa Sanpaolo’s second-biggest shareholder, with a 5 per cent stake.
While Mr Bazoli says he has had the pleasure of a hugely enjoyable working life, his personal life has been marked by tragedy.
His mother died aged 29 when he was just three months old after being pricked by a thorn and developing an infection, leaving Mr Bazoli and his brother, Luigi, to be brought up by their father, who never remarried. Mr Bazoli’s sister-in-law was later killed in the terrorist bomb attack on Piazza della Loggia in Brescia in 1974. His brother died in a car crash in 1996.
These experiences have informed his conviction that relationships should be central to business as in all of life. However, his critics say that, despite his early success, he has ended up helping to defend a system of old networks in Italian banking based on personal links and dues going back a generation.
These accusations reached fever pitch in 2013 when Mr Bazoli, who had intended to retire aged 80, was asked by his shareholders to stay on, fearing a leadership vacuum during the country’s recession (his longstanding chief executive Corrado Passera had suddenly left to join Mario Monti’s technocratic government).
Mr Bazoli’s agreement to stay turned into what an old friend calls his “annus horribilis”, compounded by management missteps as to how to replace Mr Passera. Mr Bazoli’s riposte is that the board under his guidance has since appointed the youngest bank CEO in Italy, Carlo Messina.
“The true and only problem with relationships that run through business life is another one: it is a question of the quality of relationships, whether these relationships are positive or negative, correct and transparent or contaminating and twisted,” he adds.
On the future of Italy he remains coy. The night before our interview Matteo Renzi, the young, aggressive mayor of Florence, had ousted Enrico Letta, a civil servant who was also nurtured by Andreatta and with whom Mr Bazoli was close.
Mr Bazoli says it is too soon to draw conclusions. It will take another two weeks until Mr Renzi, who is less than half his age, is even able to form a government.
Still, the professor ventures a prediction. “I believe in the future of Italy. Maybe not tomorrow but the day after tomorrow. I believe the generation of my grandchildren will bring Italy back to the light. They are highly qualified,” he says.
• Culled from FT