The figure appeared toward him from 100 yards out, complete in the signature shroud of black, a swirl of smoke coming off a freshly lit cigarette, and a knapsack slung over his shoulder.
"He said, 'Hi, I'm Sergio Marchionne,' " AutoNation boss Mike Jackson remembers on the phone last week from Atlanta. "He looked disheveled, like he had slept in his clothes. Awful. I thought, 'Well, I've never started a meeting like this. This is either gonna be magic or tragic.' "
It was 8 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2009.
The Chrysler technical center was hardly buzzing with activity. The automaker was in a ditch. The head of the largest U.S. dealership group was about to meet with the man who had saved Fiat and was now taking its new partner out of bankruptcy. Jackson was either going to believe in what Marchionne had to say, "or we were going to get out of Chrysler."
"We sit down, he orders double espressos for everyone, and off we go," Jackson recalls.
Two shots of caffeine. A final shot to make it all work.
This is how Jackson, and every dealer, approached the Marchionne magic, a quixotic path to a better place for an automaker that had little in the tank.
"Sergio says to me, 'The product is awful; quality is terrible. We've got to make improvements rapidly and invest $1 billion in the existing life cycle of these products,' " Jackson says. "Well, you never wanna do that. Sergio wanted to."
Four hours and a half-dozen espressos later, Marchionne had a life raft, and a dealer had hope.
"We walked out willing to add Chrysler stores," Jackson says. "Chrysler is gonna make it! I literally walked out a buyer."
Jackson pauses for a moment on the other end of the line, knowing he is one of the last in the industry to have seen Marchionne alive.
"We lost a legend," he says.