Sergio Marchionne, the man in black and self-proclaimed fixer who plucked Chrysler from the ashes of bankruptcy in 2009 and hitched it to Fiat to create a money-making global automaker, has died, according to a statement from Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann. He was 66.
"Unfortunately, what we feared has come to pass. Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone," Elkann said in the statement issued by Exor, the holding company for the controlling Agnelli family.
Marchionne became gravely ill after what the company called shoulder surgery, forcing him to be replaced as CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on July 21. The company appointed Mike Manley, 54, head of the automaker's Jeep and Ram brands, as Marchionne's successor.
Manley, addressing analysts Wednesday after FCA released second-quarter earnings, called Marchionne "a very special, unique man" and said "there is no doubt that he's going to be sorely missed."
Marchionne was already beginning to wind down a remarkable career -- he telegraphed well in advance that he planned to retire as CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in April 2019, after the conclusion of the company's 2014-18 business plan.
It was an improbable career that saw a young Italian immigrant in Canada go to college, become an accountant and, years later, arrive seemingly out of nowhere in European corporate circles to first save Fiat Group and later use Chrysler's strengths in light trucks to forge the combined Italian-American company into a true global automaker.
Concerns over Marchionne's medical condition rippled through the company for weeks. Corporate directors called a meeting in Italy on July 21 to determine his successor.
The Italian business website Lettera43 reported Tuesday that Marchionne suffered an embolism while undergoing an operation at the University of Zurich in late June for an invasive shoulder sarcoma.
Marchionne, a workaholic who often slept on a sofa aboard a plane as he traveled regularly to steer Fiat Chrysler, was a heavy smoker and espresso drinker until quitting both about a year ago. In his last public appearance, on June 26, he appeared fatigued and out of breath as he presented a Jeep Wrangler to Italy’s paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, at a ceremony in Rome.
Marchionne captivated the global auto industry over the last decade with his candid assessments, tireless competitive spirit, remarkable transparency and multiple roles: chairman and CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, chairman and CEO of Ferrari, chairman of Maserati, and chairman of CNH Industrial, a European producer of trucks, buses, tractors and construction vehicles.
“The auto industry has lost a real giant,” Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche, who once oversaw The Chrysler Group under DaimlerChrysler AG, tweeted. Red Bull Racing said Marchionne was a "great competitor on and off track."
President Donald Trump, in a statement on Twitter, called Marchionne "one of the most brilliant & successful car executives since the days of the legendary Henry Ford ... he loved the car industry, and fought hard for it."
"I believe that the best way to honor his memory is to build on the legacy he left us, continuing to develop the human values of responsibility and openness of which he was the most ardent champion," Elkann said in his statement.
"My family and I will be forever grateful for what he has done. Our thoughts are with Manuela, and his sons Alessio and Tyler. I would ask again everyone to respect the privacy of Sergio’s family."
Professional roots in accounting
Marchionne was born in postwar Italy, where both his grandfather and uncle were killed in the fighting. He lived in Italy until emigrating with his family to Toronto at age 14. He studied philosophy and other subjects at Canadian colleges and received master of business administration and law degrees before becoming an accountant and rising through management ranks at several Canadian businesses. He was recognized as an accountant, tax specialist, attorney and business strategist.
But it was in the automotive world where Marchionne rose to larger-than-life fame, regularly crisscrossing the globe, brandishing multiple cellular devices at a time and dressing almost constantly in black -- a life practice he said he adopted to save several seconds of decision-making every morning.
While he was perhaps the most provocative executive to steer Chrysler since Lee Iacocca retired in the early 1990s, Marchionne preferred a tiny office in a wing of FCA's vast technical center in a Detroit suburb, where he could regularly confab with engineers, marketing executives and product planners.