Advertisement

The wit and wisdom of Sergio Marchionne

The death of Sergio Marchionne, the “saviour” of Fiat and Chrysler, leaves a massive gap in the leadership of the global car industry, reports Jane Lewis.

907_MW_P32_Profile
NETHERLANDS MARCHIONNE

The death of Sergio Marchionne, the "saviour" of Fiat and Chrysler, leaves a massive gap in the leadership of the global car industry, reports Jane Lewis.

Fiat Chrysler's "fearless saviour", Sergio Marchionne, never expected to become part of the car industry, yet emerged as one of its most forceful characters in decades. Marchionne, a workaholic with a razor-sharp brain, who "never lost his hunger for the next bravura deal", honed his skills playing poker with his entourage on sleepless transatlantic flights, fuelled by strong espressos and endless packs of Muratti cigarettes, says the Financial Times. His achievement was considerable. He merged two car companies on the brink of failure to create the seventh-biggest global car group, whose market value rose tenfold during his tenure.

Superman in a tie

News of Marchionne's death at 66, from complications following surgery, came as a "gut punch" to many who knew him, says Alisa Priddle on MotorTrend.com. "A Marchionne scrum or roundtable was not to be missed." He would pepper his speeches with references to poets and philosophers, punctuated by the odd colourful expletive. He carried "a gaggle of phones one for each company he oversaw" and only ever appeared in the same black sweater. He kept piles of them in his homes in Michigan, Turin and Switzerland: to save on time and packing. He was sometimes criticised for making "outlandish forecasts" in his five-year plans, but his last appearance a month ago was a high-spirited triumph, says Bloomberg. To celebrate the milestone of paying off Fiat Chrysler's debt, he pulled a "Superman" move "zipping down his sweater to reveal a necktie".

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

In earlier, more tumultuous times, Marchionne a lawyer and accountant by training faced constant sniping for not being "a car guy". He was born in 1952 in Chieto, near Italy's Adriatic coast. Aged 14, he emigrated to Toronto with his parents, says The Wall Street Journal. He began his career at Deloitte & Touche, and returned to Europe in the 1980s, taking a series of increasingly high-level jobs at Swiss industrial firms. Marchionne entered the orbit of Fiat's Agnelli founding family, after the successful turnaround of Swiss logistics group SGS, in which they held a stake. He joined Fiat's board in 2003 and a year later was "vaulted" into the top job.

A CEO of enduring optimism

Marchionne returned Fiat to profit from a €6bn loss in 2003 within two years by cutting costs and laying off staff. But the deal "that would define his career" was his 2009 grab of Chrysler, then teetering on the brink of collapse after the financial crisis. The merger was formalised in 2014 when Marchionne achieved full control, after "getting Chrysler to pay for its own €4.35bn acquisition via a special dividend", notes the FT. It gave both carmakers "the scale they needed to survive". The group's subsequent prosperity was aided by a bold move later copied by Ford and GM to cancel production of nearly all saloons and move aggressively into sport-utility vehicles.

Marchionne had many critics: in Italy, "where he dominated industrial life", he became "a target for anti-establishment parties". And in Detroit, "Saint Sergio" could be "an absolute tyrant behind the scenes taking micromanaging to unheard of heights", notes Peter M DeLorenzo on AutoExtremist.com.

Yet, on the whole, they forgave him helped by his wit, vision and enduring optimism. During a conference call with analysts earlier this year, Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas admitted he was "a onetime sceptic who had come around full circle", observes The Wall Street Journal. "God bless you, Sergio," he said. "We're never going to see [the likes of] you again."

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

Stuart Wheeler : the granddaddy of spread-betting
People

Stuart Wheeler : the granddaddy of spread-betting

A lifelong obsession with gambling helped make Stuart Wheeler his fortune. By using that to back the Brexit campaign, he changed the face of British p…
2 Aug 2020
Great frauds in history: Joe Nacchio’s insider trading
People

Great frauds in history: Joe Nacchio’s insider trading

Joe Nacchio, CEO of telecoms firm Qwest, was convicted of 19 counts of insider trading in 2007 and served four years in prison.
30 Jul 2020
Philip Day: the retail knight falls off his horse
People

Philip Day: the retail knight falls off his horse

Retail baron Philip Day, once seen as the saviour of the British high street, is under fire for holding to a monastic silence as his suppliers struggl…
26 Jul 2020
Tony Pidgley: the Master Builder leaves the stage
People

Tony Pidgley: the Master Builder leaves the stage

Berkeley’s Tony Pidgley, who has died aged 72, was a genius who transformed the housebuilding industry, says Max King
24 Jul 2020

Most Popular

Gold bugs' dreams are coming true – but we could still see a V-shaped recovery
Gold

Gold bugs' dreams are coming true – but we could still see a V-shaped recovery

John and Merryn talk about how it's perfectly reasonable to expect a V-shaped recovery and to continue holding gold as well. Plus, inflation, staycati…
30 Jul 2020
UK banks have had a shocking week – so it’s probably a good time to buy
UK stockmarkets

UK banks have had a shocking week – so it’s probably a good time to buy

Lloyds Bank reported a £676m loss this week. And, with all of the UK's high street banks having a terrible time of things, bank stocks are detested ri…
31 Jul 2020
The charts that matter: gold finally sets a new record high 
Global Economy

The charts that matter: gold finally sets a new record high 

As gold surges past its previous high, John Stepek looks at how it's affected the charts that matter most to the global economy.
1 Aug 2020