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Sergio Marchionne's remarkable eight-year run

Sergio Marchionne, 59, continues to be a workaholic who runs two major automakers on two continents. Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST

DETROIT -- Eight years ago today, on June 1, 2004, Giuseppe Morchio, CEO of Italian automaker Fiat S.p.A. resigned, four days after the death of Fiat chairman and family patriarch Umberto Agnelli.

In Morchio's place as CEO, Fiat's board installed a 51-year-old accountant and lawyer, who was CEO of Geneva-based SGS S.A. His name: Sergio Marchionne.

What's happened over the intervening period is well-documented, including the series of events that brought the Italian-Canadian to a fourth-floor office at Chrysler world headquarters.

Barrels of midnight oil were burned and thousands of cigarettes and espressos consumed in the process of first returning Fiat to profitability in 2006, and then repeating the remarkable feat with Chrysler two years after its bankruptcy.

The self-styled workaholic CEO assembled executive teams in both cases that he thought could pull off a resurrection, and whenever he discovered a weak point on those teams, he swapped in the next volunteer.

Industry watchers marvel at the hours Marchionne keeps -- he has said that he regularly wakes at 3 a.m. to deal with Europe, and hits the sack by 10 p.m. when he's in North America -- as well as his detailed command over his many businesses.

It's telling that, unlike Chrysler's cross-town rivals, there doesn't appear to be a lot of jostling among executives right now to see who will ultimately step into Marchionne's loafers. Even working near the man seems to require a level of energy and personal commitment that few seem willing to give.

Theirs aren't impossible jobs, but they aren't easy, either, and it shows on the prematurely-aging faces of many of Chrysler's top executives.

Even the biggest, brightest candle ultimately runs out of wax, and one day, the now 59-year-old Marchionne will decide he's had enough and turn over his many cell phones to a successor or three. From what he's said, that day isn't today, or tomorrow, or really anytime soon, but it will come.

And when it does, it will bookend one of the most notable and quixotic careers in the history of the auto industry -- a career that started in earnest eight years ago today a continent away.

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