By  on April 6, 2006

MILAN — Late last week, someone set fire to the entrance of Tod's headquarters here. The damage was minimal, and police are still investigating the blaze, but the consensus is that someone is upset with Diego Della Valle, Tod's president and chief executive officer.

Tod's shoes and handbags are famous the world over. But Della Valle's political statements are what's grabbing newspaper headlines, peppering the talk shows and creating controversy in his native Italy.

Over the past few months, the entrepreneur has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and has become an unlikely star on the Italian political scene in the run-up to the national elections on Sunday and Monday. Della Valle has called Berlusconi a liar, and more recently he described Berlucsoni's behavior as arrogant. The prime minister and his supporters are so enraged, they're talking about boycotting Tod's products.

Although Della Valle has always denied that he wants to run for office, he appears on TV and in the newspaper pages as often, if not more often, than many of the country's leading politicians. While pundits can't predict how much he'll influence the electorate, Della Valle seems to be on the winning team so far. The most recent published polls indicate that Berlusconi trails his center-left opponent, Romano Prodi, by 3.5 percent to 5 percent. The two candidates faced off in the second of two televised debates this past Monday. And like any keen political follower, Della Valle was sure to be watching.

Della Valle supported and financed Berlusconi back in 1993, when the media and soccer mogul first entered politics and founded his Forza Italia party. But Della Valle, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said publicly that he's disillusioned with Berlusconi's five-year-old government. The prime minister hasn't kept his campaign promises to create new jobs and stimulate companies' competitiveness, according to the luxury goods ceo. Instead, Berlusconi has abused his power to benefit himself and his own businesses, Della Valle maintains.

“The thing that scared me the most and that continues to scare me is his talent to convince anyone,” he told La Repubblica last month. “What worries me today is that a lot of people in good faith could believe again in [Berlusconi's] ghost programs.”

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