The wit and wisdom of Sergio Marchionne

Sergio Marchionne © Getty Images

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”.

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.”