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Remembering FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne

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Sergio Marchionne in December 2010. Photo courtesy FCA.

Sergio Marchionne was a difficult individual to know. The son of an Italian Carabinieri, he spent his formative years in Canada, and later earned degrees from Canadian universities in philosophy, commerce, business management, and law. Perhaps best known for his take-no-prisoners style of management, Marchionne was widely respected – and even revered – by his direct reports, partly because of his tireless work ethic. On July 25, Marchionne died at age 66, the result of a post-surgery cerebral embolism and stroke.

Marchionne’s early career included stints with Deloitte & Touche, the Lawson Mardon Group, Glenex, and the Lonza Group. His time with product testing company SGS S.A. brought him to the attention of the Agnelli family, which founded automaker Fiat in 1899. At SGS, Marchione established himself as a business turnaround specialist, and in 2003, he joined Fiat’s board of directors. A year later, he became the company’s CEO – its fourth in three years – and immediately began cleaning house, firing executives incapable or unwilling to change direction, quickly.

According to Bloomberg, Fiat posted a net loss of €6 billion in 2003, but just two years later reported a profit on the books of €2 billion, thanks in part to an alliance with General Motors. Streamlining the corporate hierarchy dramatically shortened Fiat’s time to market for new vehicles, too, cutting it from four years to 18 months.

In June 2009, Fiat was given a 20-percent stake in Chrysler, which had been reorganized following an April 2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Focusing his attention on manufacturing quality improvements, Marchionne was able to achieve the Chrysler turnaround that former owners, Cerberus Capital Management, could not. In July 2011, Fiat purchased shares in Chrysler owned by the U.S. Treasury and Canadian governments, acquiring a controlling share of 53.5-percent. Two months later, Marchionne was elected chairman of Chrysler, and in August of 2014, Fiat and Chrysler merged to become FCA.

For all his abilities, Marchionne was also known as a micromanager who rarely slept and respected only results, not effort. Known for his casual dress in a world of tailored suits, he seemed omnipresent to employees and the public alike, appearing in a board room one day, a product launch the next, and in the garage at a Formula 1 race after that. Despite being spread thin running FCA, Ferrari, and Maserati, Marchionne also took an active role in Scuderia Ferrari’s Formula 1 efforts, and the team’s 2018 turnaround was certainly shaped by pressure from Marchionne. Heading into the 11th race of a 21-race season, Ferrari is second in the manufacturer’s standings, with team drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen second and third, respectively, in the driver’s championship.

An enthusiast himself, Marchionne reportedly owned and drove a diverse range of vehicles, from a Fiat Panda to a Dodge Challenger SRT8. He owned several Ferraris, including a 599 GTB Fiorino destroyed in a 2007 road accident, and a range-topping Ferrari Enzo. Under his tenure, FCA brought to market a wide range of enthusiast-oriented vehicles, including the fifth-generation Dodge Viper, the Hellcat Challenger and Charger models, the Challenger-based Demon, the Jeep Trackhawk, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, the Fiat 500 Abarth and even the Fiat Spider reboot, developed in conjunction with Mazda.

Questions remain regarding the nature of his shoulder surgery in late June. Though he was initially said to be recovering, Marchionne’s health took a dramatic downturn on July 21, when an announcement from FCA stated, in part, “With reference to the health of Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles communicates with profound sorrow that during the course of this week unexpected complications arose while Mr. Marchionne was recovering from surgery and that these have worsened significantly in recent hours. As a consequence, Mr. Marchionne will be unable to return to work.”

Former Jeep and Ram division head Mike Manley was appointed as FCA’s CEO following an emergency board meeting in Turin, while John Elkann, chairman of FCA, assumed Marchionne’s role as chairman of Ferrari. Louis C. Camilleri, formerly the CEO of Phillip Morris International, takes over as Ferrari’s new CEO.

Marchionne is survived by his former wife Orlandina, two sons and his current partner, Manuela Battezzato.