Sergio Marchionne, the executive credited with saving both Fiat and Chrysler by merging the two automakers, has died after complications following a surgery. He was 66. He served as CEO of Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles until July 21, 2018, when his unexpected poor health led the company to name Mike Manley as his replacement.
Marchionne was born in the Abruzzo region of Italy in 1952, and moved with his family to Toronto at age 14. He got his education in Canada, eventually earning a law degree and an MBA. His early career in business led to him performing astonishing turnarounds at Swiss pharmaceutical company Alusuisse and Geneva-based SGS SA. In May 2003, he joined Fiat's board, and became its CEO the following year, given the task of saving Italy's biggest company, then losing $7 billion annually.
"I like to fix things and to be blunt, Fiat needs a fix right now," Marchionne said at the time of his appointment, per Reuters.
Over the next 14 years, Marchionne dedicated his life to rescuing Fiat. And Chrysler, which he took over in 2009 following the American automaker's bankruptcy. By all accounts, he was an incredibly tough boss, working around the clock and expecting the same from those around him. Fiat's value rose more than 10-fold under Marchionne's tenure.
"He is not just demanding; he wants all your life devoted to him," a banker who worked with Marchionne told Reuters.
The merger of Fiat and Chrysler, the hallmark achievement of Marchionne's career in the auto industry, forced the executive to constantly bounce back and forth between company offices in Detroit, London, and Turin. Often, the only sleep he got was on the couch of his private jet while in transit, according to Bloomberg's long-serving reporter on the Marchionne beat, Tommasso Ebhardt. It was a grueling life, but it worked. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which went public in 2014, is now the world's seventh-largest automaker. While its two namesake brands have had struggles, Ram and Jeep have seen huge success, and Alfa Romeo and Maserati are in the middle of a promising turnaround.
Marchionne also orchestrated the spinoff of Ferrari in 2015, with the legendary sports-car brand going public on the New York Stock Exchange that October. He became CEO and chairman of the company in 2016, too, not long after the departure of longtime boss Luca di Montezelmolo.
During this time, Marchionne became one of the best-known figures in the automotive world for his refreshing candor and dry humor. He was known for his nearly constant outfit of a dark pullover sweater and jeans, a style he apparently chose to simplify getting dressed in the morning that set him apart from the stiff, suited car company CEO image. His famous five-year plans provided the world a transparent look at what was going on inside FCA.
Marchionne was set to retire from FCA in 2019; he intended to continue his tenure at Ferrari. His most recent five-year plan gives newly-appointed FCA CEO Mike Manley a clear roadmap to follow. At Ferrari, future plans are not publicly known-Marchionne never presented a final five-year plan for the brand. His role at Ferrari will likely be filled by Louis Camilleri, the former head of tobacco company Phillip Morris, while Fiat heir John Elkann will likely take over as chairman.
In a letter to FCA employees dated July 21st that announced Mike Manley as the new FCA CEO, Elkann paid tribute to Marchionne, a man he considered "a true mentor, partner and close friend."
We met at one of the darkest moments for our company and it was his intellect, perseverance and leadership that saved Fiat. He also achieved a remarkable turnaround at Chrysler and, through his courage in forging the cultural integration of the two companies, he established the foundations for a more secure and brighter future for us to take forward. For what Sergio has been able to accomplish, turning the impossible into the possible, we will be forever grateful.
Marchionne will be remembered as one of the most important automotive executives of our time, having orchestrated one of the largest, most complex mergers in business history. He leaves behind his longtime partner, Manuela Battezzato, his estranged wife, Orlandina, and two sons, Allessio Giacomo and Jonathan Tyler.
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