Exclusive: Giovanni Castiglioni Interview

Frank Melling | February 4, 2016

Interviews with high-ranking executives in the motorcycle industry follow a very well-trodden, understood and agreed path. First, the journalist is given a time slot. Five minutes is not unknown – but ten minutes is more common – if you are lucky.

You wait in line until you are summoned by an assistant and then you sit down, at a pre-planned distance from the designer, brand manager or whoever is being interviewed. The factory representative is accompanied by a press officer and, if they are sufficiently senior, a personal assistant. Interviews are often taped so what is said can be checked and queried.

The questions are fixed and the answers finite. How long was the bike in development? How many units will you sell? How important is the product to your brand? The answers could just as well come from a press release.

Then, as the 9 minute and 30 second mark arrives, watches are looked at pointedly, faces tighten perceptibly and you are thanked for spending the time with Mr. Important Executive. If you are lucky, there will be some souvenir of your meeting as you leave.

This is how all the entertainment businesses operate and in 2016, motorcycles are show business. Everything has been planned, controlled and is accountable and measurable. It’s the way things are always done. But then, there is MV Agusta…

Castiglioni and Melling

Daniele Torresan’s hands greet me in the lobby of the Villa Padierna, in Marbella, where MV Agusta is launching its new Brutale 800. Daniele is MV’s press officer and all conversations begin with his hands – which are always a long way in front of his body. They flutter in the air like large, white butterflies, rising and falling on the cascading torrent of words. Following them, at some distance behind, is Daniele himself.

“Frank! Frank! Franco! Where have you been? Giovanni is looking for you. Come on. Come, come, come. Giovanni is here.”

We follow the hand butterflies into one of the small bar areas and there is Giovanni Castiglioni, Chief Executive Officer and owner of MV Agusta Spa. Giovanni is 35 years old, tall, slim, fashionably bearded and Italian-smartly dressed. He is sitting by a log fire sipping a drink through two large straws.

The moment he sees me, he leaps to his feet and grasps my hand. The handshake confirms his smile. It’s strong, direct, honest and affectionate. It is what it is – and this is something I have always liked about Giovanni from the first time I met him when he accompanied his dad, Claudio, to an event I owned and organized.

The apologies for not seeing me earlier are sincere. “My wife took my car. I said to her: ‘How I am supposed to go to this meeting with no car? How do you expect me to get there?’ “But you’re married, so you know how it is…”

There’s a shrug of the shoulders from one husband to another.

“But I’m really sorry, so we’re here now. Let’s talk here, by the fire. It’s comfortable. What do you want to drink?”

Giovanni stretches out on the sofa and, again, there is the same smile. What’s missing is Daniele or a personal assistant or any of the other trappings of power which should accompany a person of Giovanni’s status.

My first question is the most important. What are we going to talk about? I want to know what it is like to be 35 years old, a millionaire and to own one of the most iconic brands in motorcycling. The number of CNC machines at MV Agusta and how many restrooms the workers have can wait for another day.

So, Giovanni, what do you think of when you get up in the morning?

“It’s the same thing as I think about during 99% of the time I am awake: it’s MV Agusta. Okay, I don’t usually think of MV when I am brushing my teeth, but every other second I am thinking about MV.

“I don’t sleep more than three or four hours each night, and I even dream about MV, so maybe I am only working on MV for 22 hours a day!”

The reasons for Giovanni’s commitment – possibly obsession – with MV Agusta are complex and not what you might first think.

Giovanni Castiglioni MV Agusta

“I don’t do it for a financial upside. I am sure I could definitely make a better capital gain in other ways. It’s more than this, a lot more, because I want to build the real, super-premium motorcycle brand in the world. I see Ducati as being where Porsche are in the car world and I want to put MV Agusta in the same place as Ferrari.”

In some ways, this is the public, press conference reason for Giovanni’s vision of a future MV. However, I want to go back several steps to find the start of the journey.

Giovanni’s father is the legendary Claudio Castiglioni, one of the giants in motorcycling history, and his relationship with his son was highly unusual.

“Claudio, my Dad, (Giovanni switches endlessly between “Claudio”, “father” and “Dad”) was my best friend, as well as my boss and my leader and a lot more – but I still don’t understand him.

“I talk a lot about him to my mother and we still can’t decide how much he was genius and how much he was reckless and irresponsible.

“He took terrible risks which could not be justified – but then, he saw things which no one else could ever see.

“Remember the Ducati deal? (I do, very well). We bought Ducati from Finmeccanica in 1985, for 1 million Euros but the Borge Panigale site was worth a lot more than that on its own.

“Ducati’s business was making diesel engines for Alfa Romeo – that’s all. In a corner of the factory they made 300 bikes a year just for old times’ sake. 300 bikes! You know – less than a bike a day. Can you believe that? 300 Ducatis in one year? When we sold Ducati, we were making over 30,000 machines a year. That’s genius…”

I have to ask the key question. With Claudio Castiglioni as your father, could you have ever done anything else but enter the family motorcycle business?

“Motorcycles have been in my life since before I can remember but so has working hard. My grandmother was a hairdresser and my grandfather worked in the metal pressings business as a tradesman. I drive past my grandmother’s house sometimes and, believe me, it’s not a palace but somewhere you would expect the local hairdresser to live.

“My dad and my uncle expanded the metal pressings business, and they bought a lot of other companies on the way. Yes, they did take risks – big risks – but that’s how you grow a business.
“Then two years before I was born they started Cagiva motorcycles and this was the road to something different.”

Giovanni leans back, takes a long pull at his drink, and his face breaks into a huge smile. “I had my first bike, a little automatic dirt bike, when I was four years old and it had Cagivino on the gas tank – you know, baby Cagiva.

“Then I was with my Dad everywhere at race meetings and in the factory and so I wasn’t so much involved in the motorcycle industry as inside it.

“When I was growing up I wanted to be a pilot and all sorts of other things but really, I was always being pulled towards motorcycles.”

Giovanni likes winning

Now Giovanni leans forward, puts his drink on the desk, his hands come up almost to shoulder height and this time the smile becomes a grin. “Then when I was 16 I had the most super cool bike ever. I had a full Fogarty 916 Superbike – a real Superbike.”

There’s a long pause for a suck at the twin straws, followed by yet another huge grin. “You know, it’s a proper Superbike racer but with two little slits for the lights. Wow! I’ve still got it today…

“We sold Ducati when we had to restructure our group finances. At the time we had several companies in different industries, and we made an important capital gain out of selling Ducati. But Dad wanted the one and only MV Agusta.

“You have to remember that Cagiva was successful so it wasn’t a financial decision. He wanted MV for the history – for Surtees and Hailwood and Agostini and everything else that MV meant to him and everyone else of his age. MV wasn’t just another name it was, well, it was MV. There’s nothing else to say.

“We already had the F4 engine complete and ready to use. I have the first engine at home in a 916 chassis with Cagiva on the gas tank. That’s another cool bike.

“We wanted MV to be a big, global player and so we sold it to Harley-Davidson. We found out that it wasn’t the right fit for Harley-Davidson but we had a contract to run the company for Harley so we did.

“Then the financial crash came and, at the same time, I found out that my Dad was really, seriously ill.”

For the first time in the interview, the mood changes – suddenly and palpably. Now, it’s possible to see a 30-year-old faced with a series of challenges which would have broken almost anyone.

“My Dad knew how ill he was and we both also knew that if Harley-Davidson sold MV we would benefit a lot financially because we had an Earn Out clause.

“It’s a big mistake to think that we bought MV for one Euro like you will sometimes read. MV cost us 80 million Euros in what we gave up with the Earn Out clause, so we didn’t take the company back for the money.

“It was also a business losing 40 million Euros a year. Think of that Frank. MV was losing nearly a million Euros every week.

“After Claudio died, I sat in my office and I hated MV for many reasons. First, I was on my own and I realized that I didn’t know jack s**t about business. Yes, I had been to London Business School but I knew what was being said about me, usually behind my back but not always. You know, Giovanni is Claudio’s boy – that’s the only reason he’s here.

“Most people gave me a month before I f**ked up MV totally or I broke and gave up. The ones who liked me gave me three months before I broke!

“I was 30 years old and terribly lonely – and alone. My dad was a one man show, surrounded by ‘Yes Men’, and now, I was on my own.

“Then there was MV. I hated MV and loved it at the same time. MV was too important to fail but things were bad.

“2008 was right in the center of the bank crash, so the banking system was closed. We had no new products and sales of premium bikes were s**t.

“The pressures came from everywhere. Most important, I had promised Claudio that I would make MV a success. Every minute, of every day, I felt his presence.

“Then, I wanted to make MV a success for me. It’s okay being the great Claudio Castiglioni’s son but I wanted to be Giovanni Castiglioni and to be respected for being me.

“So, I took a lot of tough decisions very fast. The easiest ones were straightforward and just sound business. Reduce supply chain costs, cut waste in the factory, make the production more efficient and all those sort of things.

“I also had to get rid of the ‘Yes Men’ who had surrounded Claudio. I needed to run MV my way. This was harder but I had to do it – and straight away.

Giovanni Castiglioni at MV gathering

“I was helped a lot by Massimo Bordi since 2011, who is a professional, Italian industrialist. We had a big fall out, as you do in business, and today I fully regret it.

“Now, by looking back, I realize that he was my true teacher and showed me how to run a company efficiently and I am thankful to him.

“By 2012 MV was over-doubling its revenues and I am very proud of this achievement. I didn’t break. I didn’t run away and I didn’t f**k MV up.”

And the absolute factual truth is that Giovanni is correct regarding everything he says.

So what of the future?

“MV is a very interesting company. It is like a big multi-national but on a very small scale. I enjoy the challenges of getting all the personalities and nationalities working together.

“I also like learning from the car world. Porsche designed our production lines and they did a fantastic job.

“I am a car fanatic, especially Mercedes AMGs. I have collected 12 of their masterpieces over the years, and I am especially proud of the relationship between MV and AMG. I reached this agreement entirely on my own and it took me 12 months of very hard work. AMG don’t come into partnerships with just anyone they meet in the street and so, yes, I am really proud of this deal.

“I am still defining MV Agusta. At one time, I thought that we could make a lot of motorcycles but now I think that the right number is 10,000. I see Ducati as being like Porsche and I want MV to be more like Ferrari – a super-premium brand. For sure, there are 10,000 customers in the world for a super-premium motorcycle.”

Now Giovanni’s eyes flash. “I am very excited about the Turismo Veloce because this extends what we can offer to our customers and yet still keeps everything which is good about MV. I see the Turismo Veloce as like a Porsche Panamera or an “S” class Mercedes – big, fast, luxurious, go-anywhere cars. The Turismo Veloce had to be like this – fast and luxurious, but something you can enjoy with your wife or girlfriend.

I agree with Giovanni and then add that in my view the Turismo Veloce is the world’s first hyper sport-tourer. There’s another grin.

“Hey, I like that Frank. I’ll have to steal that one for the next press conference…”

Sure enough, Giovanni did use “Hyper Sport-Tourer” in his next press conference. I’ll have to remember to send the invoice!

So what of the future? MVs are still made in the old Aermacchi seaplane factory on the banks of Lake Varese. Will Giovanni move to a more modern site? There’s another laugh…

“No, no, no. Why would I move? I walk through the factory and the history meets me on every corner – Aermacchi, Harley-Davidson, Cagiva and now MV. No, it’s a beautiful place to be and I love it.

“You know, I could have moved because KTM offered me the Husqvarna factory in Cassinetta di Biandronno when they bought Husky from BMW. It had 30 million Euros spent on it – really state of the art.

“Then I looked out over the lake and across to the mountains and thought about the history and said to myself, ‘Why would you want to move?’ And of course I wouldn’t…”

We have talked a long time, and we could go on a lot longer but we’re both tired. Two, last quick questions then.

What bikes do you have inside your house?

“I have got a lot of bikes – too many. You know all the Cagiva GP bikes and the World Superbikes from Ducati but actually inside the house only three. The first is the CC (Claudio Castiglioni) F4 and this has a special place in my heart.

“Then I have one of the Brutales which Claudio made for the Italian team, in the national colors, when Italy won the World Cup in 2006.

“Thirty bikes! Can you believe it?” Giovanni shakes his head in disbelief.

“Then we made one extra and I have that one.

“And the last was a present from my wife for our 10th wedding anniversary. It’s a 1950 MV Agusta CGT scooter in baby blue. The guy who owned the scooter was an MV fanatic and he said that he would never, ever sell the bike – not to anyone, not even to the man who owned MV.

“Then my wife said, ‘Well, it is for the man who owns MV!’ so he agreed.

“There’s also one other bike I must mention although it’s not in my house. On the stairs to my office is an F4RC. I look at it and think, ‘Who the hell pushed me to make that thing? And then I stand back and I just love it. It’s pure MV.”

And what of the future?

“I still have a lot to do with MV and sometimes I drive my wife crazy but she is a smart lady and so she says: ‘If you sell MV you will just do the same with another brand and build it up again, so you might as well stay with MV where we all know each other!”

It’s been a privilege to spend the evening with Giovanni and a lot of fun, in the uniquely special MV Agusta way. Thanks Giovanni.

Giovanni Castiglioni
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Frank Melling

Contributing Editor |Articles | Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

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