With Berlusconi gone, business empire faces succession question

MILAN: With Silvio Berlusconi gone, the spotlight turns to a potential succession drama as his heirs inherit the controlling stake of the late Italian mogul's vast business empire.

Fininvest, the Berlusconi family trust, controls a myriad of companies in sectors ranging from television to film to publishing and football.

The Berlusconi fortune was recently estimated to be worth around US$7 billion.

Since his death on Monday, speculation has swirled about the future of Italy's third largest fortune – from the possibility that its companies could be broken up to whether his children and his girlfriend might fight for the spoils.

The family patriarch held onto his 61 per cent stake of the group until the end. How it will be divided up among his children is unknown as the contents of his will have not been made public.

The idea of a breakup seems appealing to investors as shares of Berlusconi's TV group, MediaForEurope, surged by 13 per cent on such speculation on Tuesday.

Fininvest, however, sought to quash all speculation, issuing a statement saying that its business activities "will continue in a line of absolute continuity in every respect."

The group faces a key test at the end of June when it holds its first shareholder meeting without "Il Cavaliere" (The Knight).

In a headline, the newspaper La Repubblica said: "Now the battle between his children for the 61 per cent stake in the Cavaliere's safe."

He had two children, Marina and Pier Silvio, with his first wife, Carla Dall'Oglio. They each hold 7.65-percent stakes in Fininvest.

Berlusconi had three other children – Luigi, Eleonora and Barbara – with his second wife, Veronica Lario. They have a combined stake of 21.42 per cent.

La Repubblica noted that if Berlusconi's 61 per cent share were divided equally among his offspring, the three children from his second marriage would end up with a majority stake of 58 percent.

His two older children, however, hold major positions in the family business.

First in line of succession is Berlusconi's daughter Marina, 56, who has headed Fininvest since 2005 as well as the Mondadori publishing house since 2003.

Nicknamed the Tsarina or the Iron Princess, Marina is reputed to be the business mastermind of the Berlusconi clan and has been involved in the family business from a young age.

"She appears fragile but has a wrought iron character," Berlusconi liked to say about his eldest daughter, who has ranked among the most powerful women in the world by Forbes.

Despite the speculation about a potential feud, analysts say Berlusconi had planned his succession well.

"Marina Berlusconi took over from her father, gradually acquiring freedom to act and independence which allowed her to become a focal point for the group," said Andrea Colli, a professor of business history at Bocconi University in Milan.

"His empire will survive without Silvio Berlusconi because he planned ahead of time for the transition between generations," Colli said.

The professor noted that Berlusconi had not been directly involved in the management of the group since entering politics in the 1990s.

Giuseppe Di Taranto, an emeritus professor of economic history at Luiss University in Rome, said "there is no risk of the Berlusconi empire weakening."

"On the contrary, it will emerge strengthened because his children have proved themselves to be very good managers," he said.

Pier Silvio Berlusconi, 54, took the reins of Mediaset in 2015 after starting his career at the group's advertising unit, Publitalia '80.

Berlusconi's other business include Mediolanum bank, the Medusa Film production company and the Serie A football club Monza, along with assets such as villas and yachts.

"Marina will probably head the group and will control the majority with Pier Silvio," Di Taranto said.

"I don't think there will be family feuds. They're very united," he said.

Berlusconi is also survived by his 33-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, a former model and lawmaker in his Forza Italia political party.

Could she be a source of discord? "No," said Colli. After some tensions with Berlusconi's children, "they found a modus vivendi" – a way to live together. -- AFP

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