Former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne's illness and death brought an illustrious career to a sudden and unexpected end.
While much of the media coverage has focused on Marchionne's herculean rescues of Fiat and Chrysler, we couldn't help but remember an often undervalued aspect of his tenure at the helm of the world's seventh-largest automaker.
In an age when carmaker and tech executives often brim with optimistic forecasts, Marchionne, one of the longest-serving automotive CEOs of the modern era, was an outspoken skeptic. And not in the curmudgeonly sense that one can dismiss as too stuck in the past. Marchionne made an art of navigating the hard realities of the car business in words and deeds that forced us to reconsider the world absent rose-colored glasses.
Take the time in 2014 when he begged consumers not to buy his company's only battery-electric vehicle, the Fiat 500e, because he lost $14,000 on each one he sold. On fuel economy mandates, he urged regulators to simply set targets and not mandate the technologies his company used to reach them.
"It was always make-believe that electric cars save anything like the amount of CO2 claimed for them. Before we assume electric vehicles are the ultimate answer, we need to consider cradle-to-grave life cycle," Marchionne said last October.
True to his roots as an accountant, Marchionne knew that a carmaker's pace of innovation relies as much on the balance sheet as it does on the r&d lab. His "Confessions of a Capital Junkie" presentation made the case for an industry that couldn't leap into the future alone, and FCA struck a savvy partnership with Alphabet's Waymo to supply hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans for the company's autonomous work.
Here's our confession: As reporters covering the advent of literal flying cars and other groundbreaking technologies, we sometimes can get caught up in the hype cycle as well. It would be wise to take a page from Marchionne's playbook.
"We need to be very careful about people that make noise," Marchionne told Bloomberg in January. "We have been very reluctant to make statements about where the industry is going to go."
— Shiraz Ahmed and Larry P. Vellequette