Gilberto Benetton, 77, Dies; Expanded Family Clothing Company

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ROME — Gilberto Benetton, who drove the expansion of the family clothing business known for its colorful sweaters and provocative advertisements into investments in agriculture, real estate, highways and other nonwoolen enterprises, died on Monday in Treviso, Italy. He was 77.

A spokesman for the family’s holding company, Edizione, confirmed the death without specifying the cause.

Mr. Benetton and his three siblings founded the Benetton Group in 1965, manufacturing and selling colorful sweaters for the Italian market. They opened their first store abroad, in Paris, in 1969.

Benetton expanded rapidly, eventually selling apparel through 5,000 franchised shops worldwide and building United Colors of Benetton brand recognition through unorthodox ad campaigns that used striking images: of a dying AIDS patent, of a priest and a nun kissing, of African immigrants being rescued at sea, and others.

Edizione is valued at $13.6 billion.

The early success of the family’s venture was rooted in the different talents of the four Benetton siblings. Giuliana was the designer and wool expert, Carlo was in charge of purchasing and production, Luciano was the salesman, leader and public face, and Gilberto was the financial brain.

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Mr. Benetton in 2009. He was on the board of the infrastructure company Atlantia, which his family controls. It drew scrutiny this summer when a viaduct it operated collapsed in Genoa, Italy, killing 43 people.
CreditBertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Our fortune was to be four siblings with completely different features but no jealousy,” Gilberto Benetton told the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore in a 2009 interview. “Being complementary and blindly trusting each other, we were able to express ourselves to the fullest.”

Their nonapparel holdings include the infrastructure group Atlantia, which the family controls. It drew scrutiny this summer when a viaduct it operated collapsed in Genoa, killing 43 people. Gilberto was on the board of Atlantia, Italy’s largest toll road operator.

Italy’s populist government threatened to revoke Atlantia’s concession, and a newspaper published pictures of the siblings on its front page. The disaster weighed heavily on Mr. Benetton, who was ill and troubled by the death of his younger brother, Carlo, from cancer in July, Italian news organizations reported.

Gilberto Benetton was born on June 19, 1941, in Treviso, 25 miles north of Venice, in a region that has become one of Italy’s most economically productive. His father, Leone, owned a small car rental company and died when the children were young. His mother, Rosa, was a homemaker.

Gilberto studied accounting. Giuliana, his older sister, developed a passion for knitwear working in a small knitting factory and making colorful gloves and scarves for her brothers.

The family business started with a yellow sweater made with wool traditionally used for blankets that Giuliana had knitted for Luciano, who at the time was a shop assistant in a fabric store. His friends liked it so much that they ordered some.

Mr. Benetton, the vice chairman of Edizione, spearheaded Benetton’s international diversification starting in the 1980s, when the family decided to invest some of its billions in the food and beverage industry.

“The clarity with which he saw the world and his capacity to grasp and foresee economic and social developments drove the most significant strategic choices of Edizione,” Atlantia’s chairman, Fabio Cerchiai, and Edizione’s chief executive, Marco Patuano, said in a joint statement after the death.

In recent years, as Benetton struggled to keep the pace with rapidly growing giants like Zara, Mr. Benetton’s strategy was to keep investing abroad, with trusted managers from the outside now revamping and leading it.

In 1995, he led the acquisition of Italy’s highway rest stop restaurants, and a few years later he branched out into infrastructure and transportation, buying from the government the concession to operate almost half of Italy’s toll roads.

Also in the 1990s, Mr. Benetton pushed to invest in major Italian companies, including Telecom Italia and the influential investment bank Mediobanca, as well as a real estate company selling prestige properties globally and a large agriculture concern near Rome.

This year, the infrastructure group acquired its Spanish rival, Abertis, making it the largest toll road operator in the world.

A sports lover, Mr. Benetton and the family bought the basketball, volleyball and rugby teams in Treviso, where he continued to live. The family now owns only the rugby team.

Along with his siblings Giuliana and Luciano, Mr. Benetton is survived by his wife, Lalla; two daughters, Barbara and Sabrina; and three grandchildren. Carlo Benetton died in July at 74.

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