Sergio Marchionne likes to move fast. The CEO of Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group owns a half-dozen Ferraris, has homes in three countries, and spends much of his time on a private jet shuttling between Detroit, Fiat's hometown of Turin, and other outposts of his growing empire.
Fueled by a dozen espressos a day and packs of Muratti cigarettes, he stormed into Fiat a decade ago and fired most of the top management, then did the same at Chrysler in 2009, installing a dozen newcomers on his second day.
And on a recent gray Tuesday morning, Marchionne took one of his Ferraris -- a black Enzo -- around Fiat's high-speed test track near the town of Balocco, 40 miles east of Turin. "When you're pissed off," he said, stamping on the accelerator and pushing the car from a comfortable 120 miles per hour to something over 200, "there's nothing better than this."
As he and Fiat Chairman John Elkann prepare to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 13 to mark a new listing, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Marchionne is racing to create a lineup of cars that will lure buyers into showrooms worldwide.
By 2018, the combined company plans to spend about $60 billion adding more than 30 models, from subcompacts to a Maserati SUV. That, he predicts, will help the new company boost sales 60 percent to 7 million cars and churn out a profit of 5 billion euros ($6.3 billion).
"We're moving as fast as we possibly can," Marchionne said after his spin around the circuit's banked curves.
Marchionne would be the first to tell you speed can be dangerous.
"In the car business, sometimes you crash," he said.
He should know: In 2007, he smashed up a $350,000 Ferrari on a highway in Switzerland. Yet he argues that moving any slower would be even riskier.
Fiat Chrysler is the world's No. 7 automaking group by deliveries, and Marchionne has long said there's room for just a half-dozen or fewer major players.
The transatlantic marriage of two struggling regional carmakers will probably be the capstone of Marchionne's career. He says he's only committed to staying at Fiat through 2018. So how quickly he gets the new company on its feet during these last laps may well determine his legacy.
"The idea of revitalizing an American company was particularly appealing to him, and you can see it in how he's built up Chrysler," said Ron Bloom, a member of President Obama's auto-industry bailout team who recalls sharing cigarette breaks with Marchionne on a Treasury Department balcony overlooking the White House during Chrysler talks.
Marchionne's plan has legions of doubters. Half of the analysts who cover Fiat recommend investors sell the shares, saying the CEO's sales goals are unrealistic and its 10 billion euros in debt is too high.
Researcher IHS Automotive forecasts the company will fall short of its 2018 targets by about 1.8 million cars.
"Are they really going to launch all those models?" said IHS analyst Ian Fletcher. "And to develop new models is one thing; to attract customers is another."
Sipping espresso on the veranda of the 19th-century farmhouse at the center of the Balocco track, Marchionne said: "I'm used to incredulity."
He sets ambitious targets, he said, because aiming lower would be "to establish mediocrity as a benchmark of the house. If you dream of peanuts, you get monkeys."
A poker fanatic who insists that passengers on the Fiat corporate jet play cards with him deep into the night, Marchionne has a record more as a dealmaker than an automaker.
In the past decade, he has pulled both Fiat and Chrysler back from the edge of bankruptcy. In 2005 he played a game of chicken with General Motors, threatening to enforce a contract that would have required the struggling American company to buy even-dodgier Fiat; he walked away with a $2 billion cash settlement.
Four years later, he took over Chrysler, ultimately spending only about 10 percent of the $36 billion Germany's Daimler AG paid for the company in 1998.
He's been less successful with cars. Marchionne ditched the storied Italian brand Lancia after trying to rebadge Chrysler models as Lancias for sale in Europe.
He was late to China. And despite initial promises of bringing Alfa Romeo back to the U.S. as early as 2011, the sporty luxury brand won't get there until 2016, with the exception of a two-seater to be introduced this year but won't generate sales of more than 1,000 units.
Marchionne acknowledges that he was new to the auto industry when he took over Fiat, but points out that he's now the longest serving CEO of any major European automaker.
"I'm a car freak," he said, looking over the lineup of Maseratis and Ferraris under the portico of a converted stable at Balocco. "But my survival instinct is stronger than my addiction to cars."
That survival instinct has led him to largely abandon the mass market in Europe, which he says is too crowded to offer a significant profit. Instead, he wants to transform Fiat's under-utilized Italian plants into export machines for more expensive cars.
In 2000, Fiat made 1.4 million vehicles in Italy. By 2013, its Italian output had dropped below 400,000 as Fiat wound down models that compete directly with best-sellers like Volkswagen AG's Golf.
"We did a lot of soul-searching to try to see how best to utilize what we had in Italy," said Marchionne's boss, Elkann, the great-great-grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, who founded Fiat in 1899.
The two make an unlikely team. While Marchionne is always ready with a quick riposte sprinkled with profanity, the gangly, 38-year-old Elkann speaks slowly, as if every word has been squeezed through a filter.
At Balocco he's wearing a pin-striped suit with a red sweater vest and blue tie; he rarely appears in public with an open collar, a sharp contrast to Marchionne's trademark black sweater and dark blue slacks.
As the scion of the Agnelli family, Elkann is almost like royalty in Italy and a constant focus of the tabloid press. He drinks tea instead of coffee. He doesn't smoke. And he owns just a single Ferrari.
Despite their different temperaments -- and their 24-year age difference -- Elkann and Marchionne have "a very easy relationship," said Bill Ford, the grandson of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, whose family has known the Agnelli clan for more than 50 years.
"It can be awkward when you're the boss of someone much older," said Ford, who hosted the pair at a dinner at his house along with then-Ford CEO Alan Mulally. "I've been impressed that that's not true with those two."
Elkann and Marchionne say they fire off dozens of BlackBerry BBM text messages to each other daily -- mostly in English, despite their shared Italian heritage.
Elkann, who took over management of the family's holdings at age 28, says Marchionne has taught him to be flexible.
"You can't plan everything," said Elkann.
"We've learned that serendipity is real," Marchionne echoes in his gravelly voice punctuated by a smokers cough. "S**t will happen."
Some executives who know both men say that they have something of a father-son relationship, but Marchionne said, "he's more like a kid brother."
The brawny Jeep brand is central to their plan. Marchionne plans to start building the Cherokee SUV in China by 2016 as he seeks to double sales to more than 1.9 million vehicles, largely by quintupling deliveries in the world's most populous nation.
The Jeep name, Marchionne says, "is credible, and is understood by everybody."
And he expects Alfa Romeo and Maserati to steal buyers from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi.
The Germans' reputation as makers of higher-quality cars than the Italians "is just crap," Marchionne said, stubbing his cigarette into an ashtray.