Sergio Marchionne came into the auto industry 15 years ago as an outsider, a paunchy middle-aged accountant-turned- corporate strategist with no experience running a car factory, no record of approving a truck design and no history of listening to dealers or creating a marketing campaign.
But he departed last week as one the industry's most daring visionaries.
Marchionne, who pulled Chrysler from the ashes in 2009 and rebuilt it into a fountain of profits, died Wednesday, July 25, in Zurich, Switzerland, at age 66, exhausted finally after a career of working long hours over espresso and cigarettes, countless nights sleeping on airplanes and nearly a decade of grafting together two giant auto companies with little in common. He reportedly had been diagnosed with serious health problems a year ago, but kept up the grueling schedule, though he did give up smoking.
Marchionne pulled Fiat and Chrysler from the brink of failure and made them work together globally. On June 1, Marchionne said he expected Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to at least double its adjusted earnings from 2017 through 2022.
Marchionne was himself an improbability.
Born into postwar Italy, where family members had been killed by soldiers or partisan unrest, Marchionne grew up on Italy's Adriatic coast. His family moved to Toronto when he was 14, and he later studied philosophy and other subjects at Canadian colleges, receiving business and law degrees before becoming an accountant. He rose through management ranks at several businesses in Canada and then Switzerland, becoming a tax specialist, attorney and corporate fix-it man.
His successes led him in 2002 to the CEO job at a storied Swiss quality-inspection company, SGS, which was near collapse. Marchionne's moves to fix the company mightily pleased one of its biggest shareholders — the Agnelli family of Italy. And the Italian-speaking CEO was invited onto the board of the Agnellis' primary business, Fiat.
Fiat also was on the brink of disaster at the time. It faced losses of $2.5 billion from its car operations in 2004, when Marchionne was asked to take over as CEO. Many analysts assumed Fiat would simply exit the auto business.
Marchionne negotiated a payment of more than $2 billion by General Motors to settle past contractual obligations with Fiat. He closed inefficient factories and restructured debt, then focused on expanding Fiat's product line, investing €10 billion to develop 20 new models in four years.
The turnaround made Fiat an independent, cash-rich player by the end of the decade, just as the economic crash of 2008 hit the U.S. and battered the auto industry.
Marchionne seized the moment in 2009 to acquire for Fiat a 20 percent stake in Chrysler. Considering the disastrous state of Chrysler and the U.S. economy, many wondered why he was bothering. The complicated deal gave the UAW health-care trust a 55 percent interest and the U.S. and Canadian governments controlling minority stakes.