Sergio Marchionne, one of the greatest automotive visionaries of the last quarter century, has died of complications from a recent surgery. He was 66 years old.
Tributes from across the automotive world have been pouring into Fiat in days following his death. Marchionne has spent the last 14 years at the helm of Fiat, rescuing Fiat itself from bankruptcy then saving Chrysler from the same fate. All the while keeping the soul of the company.
It’s not hard to cut the fat off of a company and make it profitable, see Nissan, but to do so without lobotomizing the company is the trick. That’s exactly what Sergio Marchionne did, if we look at the state of both Chrysler and Fiat in 2004 versus today there was an indisputable improvement. It can be said that under the leadership of Marchionne, they not only did they not lose their soul but actually found themselves again. Products like the Multipla and Avenger have met their demise while cars like the Charger, Challenger, 124s and 500s flourish.
Marchionne was cut from a different mold than your average Italian businessman. While most of them follow the status quo and work when needed, Marchionne was known for being relentless and for trailblazing his way to his goals. While most Italians would have gone through the standard channels when negotiating with unions via Italy’s Confindustria, a confederacy of businesses for lack of a better term, Marchionne left the Confindustria and negotiated with unions on his own.
This was a bold move but Marchionne was known for getting his way, early in his tenure he negitated a $2 billion payment from GM in 2005 and sent Chrysler’s Jeep brand across the world making it one of the most profitable branches of FCA. He tirelessly worked day and night sleeping on his private plane when flying from Turin to Detroit and even finalized the Chrysler merger while on a beach in Florida. In a world of Italian business where change happens at a glacial pace, Marchionne moved at the speed of light.
The casual sweater clad CEO often found himself ahead of the curve, he oversaw the dissolving of sedans while concentrating on SUVs. While we are not fans of crossovers here at MotorCult, he did this to keep performance cars in production and that is a prime directive that all executives should follow He presided over the final generation Viper, 500 Abarth, 124 Abarth, LaFerrari, Dodge Demon, Hellcats and growth of the SRT division. We should also mention the impressive profitability of the Ferrari brand, which is rare for a super car manufacturer.
What is most admirable about the leadership of Marchionne is the Fiat brand in America, he has dedicated the brand to selling small fun cars to America. While the numbers are peanuts compared to crossover laden brands, a small fun brand America breathes life into our otherwise dull automotive biosphere. While companies like Ford see sub-compacts as an austerity buy, Fiat gives us the 500 Abarth, one of the best new automotive products currently being marketed here. Despite being a dollars and sense CEO, he understands the power of a niche market like a performance subcompact leading to future more profitable sales.
Marchionne also gave us the Fiat 500E, an electric Fiat 500 with a 100 mile range and performance second only to the Abarth. This was a money losing proposition for Fiat but a necessary evil for emissions. He was known for his humorous quotes and as such at the time of the 500E’s release he said “I hope you don’t buy [ the Fiat 500E] because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.”
Marchionne’s untimely passing leaves Mike Manley, previous global head of Jeep, in charge of the corporate juggernaut. Manley will have to contend with FCA being overly reliant on the American new car market, profitability slowly recovering in Europe, minimal inroads made in China and an electrification revolution on the horizon that Fiat has very little invested in.
Manley has very big shoes to fill and it is a rare event that a successor of such an innovative CEO can continue down the same path but it is not unprecedented. Chrysler itself has it’s history of a single CEO making great decisions then being undermined by boardroom drones, see the innovation of Lee Iacocca. I have hopes that FCA will continue down it’s current path that Sergio Marchionne so painstakingly trail blazed.
Sergio Marchionne will go down in history as one of the greatest executives in automotive history. He saved two companies from opposite ends of the automotive spectrum from certain demise without losing their soul and in fact made some of the best products they’ve produced in ages. As a car enthusiast that appreciates both the smallest and largest vehicles of the world I personally owe a debt of gratitude to Sergio Marchionne. Rather you like muscle cars with big hairy V8s, Italian super cars, or petite hot hatchbacks, Sergio Marchionne has impacted your life in the most positive way. His humor, leadership and style will be sorely missed by auto enthusiasts around the world. Thank you for your years of service Sergio, may you rest in peace.