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Carlo Toto sees the contest as the ant against the giant. If he succeeds in beating off the foreign competition to take over Alitalia, then victory would complete a process he began 12 years ago when he founded AirOne and broke the national carrier’s monopoly.

Alitalia is a national embarrassment. The airline, in which the government is the main shareholder, is losing nearly €2m ($2.8m) a day. The government hopes to find a new owner before Christmas. Yet, in its day, it was a venerable institution.

“The monopoly of Alitalia was like a state within a state. In the 1970s and 1980s it seemed like a foreign affairs ministry, a big untouchable power,” Mr Toto recalls.

“When we started in 1995, everyone said we would never survive. It was the giant and the ant…They had a huge publicity budget and they would call me up every time and say we are starting a big media campaign against you. The arrogance of Alitalia.”

Mr Toto, 63, is known as a stubborn man who has broken down doors and been ejected through them. Italy is a country of small businesses in the shadow of big family dynasties, and Mr Toto has clawed his way up since joining his father’s “very small” construction firm at the age of 19.

As well as AirOne, now flying to 23 destinations in Italy and nine foreign cities, his Toto Group has also broken the state’s railway monopoly, and builds and runs highways.

Unpretentious, rather stout and with penetrating eyes, Mr Toto does not fit the image of the flamboyant, publicity-seeking Italian businessman, and does not seem too relaxed in their midst. His spokeswoman, who is tall and makes up for his lack of glamour, regrets that it is hard to get him to have his picture taken.

Speaking to the Financial Times in the historic hotel Villa d’Este by Lake Como, Mr Toto is attending for the first time the annual Ambrosetti forum, which brings together Italy’s political and business elite, some foreign dignitaries, and a pack of reporters.

“I feel calm,” he insists. Still, he admits he is not keen on the salotto buono – the fine clubs and their networking. Instead, he talks a lot about his family – his university-educated daughter and two of his three sons have senior positions in the business – and about growing up in Abruzzo, a rugged and rural region of central Italy.

He says it is “100 times” more difficult in Italy than in the US to fight the system and succeed. But he did and bought his first Ferrari (second-hand) at the age of 25. Dispelling any suspicions, he says he is very tough on corruption.

At 21 he tried to become a pilot but failed Alitalia’s training course. So he went into the air force academy, but was punished for bad discipline and dropped out to complete his national service as a simple soldier.

He broke into aviation by buying a training school with two Cessnas, which he transformed into an air freight business. AirOne began with three Boeing 737s flying the lucrative Rome-Milan route. It now has 48 aircraft and will have 90 new Airbus A320s delivered by 2012.

“It is important to have a certain visibility,” says Mr Toto. “AirOne provided it. But the visibility does not let you make mistakes.”

His latest venture – and he jokingly lowers his voice because Fulvio Conti, the head of the former utility monopoly, Enel, is at the next table – will be in energy and windfarms. He is also building a high-speed passenger train service.

But his main love is aviation. Like a number of Italian politicians (but not all), he wants Alitalia to remain Italian and not be bought by Air France, Aeroflot or the US private equity firm TPG.

“The name will stay Alitalia – we replace only the planes. We have the most beautiful country in the world. We need an airline.”

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