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.”Renato Mannheimer, a leading poll analyst, said Della Valle's criticisms could influence voters.

“To see a great businessman argue with Berlusconi, who himself represents the figure of a businessman, can make an impression on people,” he said.

Part of the irony is that Berlusconi earned Italians' respect with his business acumen. Like Della Valle, he's a self-made man and an entrepreneur — and the richest man in Italy. His empire, estimated by Forbes to be worth $11 billion, includes the country's three largest private television networks, publishing house Mondadori, the AC Milan soccer team and numerous other businesses — some of which have created scandals for his government.

Berlusconi has been on the defensive recently, mostly because Italy's economic growth lags behind that of France and Germany and the country has a debt load that exceeds its gross domestic product. The Italian economy didn't grow at all last year, and the government recently downgraded its 2006 growth forecast to 1.3 percent from 1.5 percent.

Last month, the prime minister lashed out at a public meeting of the powerful industrial lobby Confindustria. Della Valle sat in the front row at the event in Vicenza, located in the northeast corner of Italy.

An animated and agitated Berlusconi declared that managers should spend more time working and exporting their products than expressing pessimism and following the numerous corruption cases pending against him. He accused the newspapers of skewing to the political left and manipulating economic data to his disadvantage. The prime minister also alleged that any business people with ties to left-wing parties had “skeletons in their closets.”

One of Berlusconi's final flourishes at the conference was a direct attack on Della Valle. On a recent TV program, the Tod's ceo said he was once friendly enough with Berlusconi that they addressed one another with the informal “tu” form in Italian. The prime minister evidently interpreted this remark as an insult.

“The only thing I ask of Mr. Della Valle is that if he addresses the prime minister, he uses the lei and not the tu,” Berlusconi quipped at the conference, referring to the more formal address.

Della Valle was spotted shouting “Shame on you” to the stage, his hands flanking his mouth, like a soccer supporter in a stadium. Truth be told, he wasn't the only manager making noise. After Berlusconi's speech, the meeting disintegrated into factions of cheering supporters and booing dissenters.“I saw up close a man who has lost control of his nerves. There is neither a tactic nor a strategy behind it,” Della Valle told La Repubblica in an interview afterward. “Berlusconi is a person who needs a lot of rest.”

Della Valle stepped down from his position on Confin­dustria's executive committee three days after the Berlus­coni standoff. He said he didn't want his personal opinions to be used against Confindustria as a whole and its president, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, a close friend of Della Valle's. Montezemolo, the president of Fiat, is extremely popular in Italy. He made a name for himself running Ferrari, and many consider him a future political contender.

In Italy, Della Valle's pre-election profile had already eclipsed that of a standard executive or a self-made man. Buying struggling soccer team Fiorentina and a stake in Italy's most influential newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, catapulted him well beyond the world of luxury goods and into the general consciousness of Italians. He's also a player in the banking world, retaining a minority stake in Banca Nazionale del Lavoro.

Della Valle has rarely bitten his tongue on issues of public debate, whether he was criticizing a spate of recent banking scandals or battling in favor of collective TV rights for soccer teams — another point of contention with Berlusconi. Earlier this year, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party blocked legislation to change the way rights are negotiated by individual teams — a move Della Valle cited as an example of Berlusconi's conflict of interest as both a team owner and owner of the nation's three largest private TV networks.

Unlike many politicians and other business people, Della Valle speaks in simple, straightforward language and absolute terms. His speech is sometimes laced with expletives, but it doesn't sound vulgar because his delivery is so genteel.

The ceo, who has built a 503 million euro, or $616 million, business at Tod's, doesn't veer too far left or right in his political philosophy. He is close friends with Clemente Mastella, leader of the small centrist party Udeur, which is part of Prodi's left-leaning coalition. Parties like Udeur bridge a highly polarized political spectrum in Italy.

The country is home to one of the biggest Communist parties in Western Europe, as well as several political movements descending from Fascism. Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of dictator Benito Mussolini, is seeking reelection to her seat in parliament here.Stefano Folli, an editorialist for newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, said he doesn't think Della Valle will enter politics, but he is convinced the businessman will remain visible as a public figure, regardless of the election outcome.

“Della Valle is someone who will continue to occupy himself with politics even after a possible defeat of Berlusconi,” Folli predicted.

Still, he warned that Della Valle will have to refine his language and approach if he wants to continue to inhabit a public sphere and benefit from his links to Montezemolo.

It looks like Montezemolo agrees with that assessment. Speaking on the sidelines of a press conference last January, Montezemolo said he preferred not to talk about politics for the next few months before the elections. He did, however, offer a suggestion for his friend Della Valle.

“Sometimes he has to be careful,” he warned.

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