Retired reporter Bradford Wernle covered the Chrysler Group for Automotive News through three ownership eras, including the beginning of Fiat's.
During the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show, I witnessed a rare unguarded moment in Sergio Marchionne's meteoric career: the time he failed miserably in his audition as an entry-level market research intern.
Marchionne had been swarmed by reporters after a Dodge press conference during which the brand flouted all established auto show practices by introducing six vehicles at once. Marchionne was the undisputed star of that show, at which the Chrysler Group also introduced a glitzy dealership concept and the latest model in its North American lineup — the Fiat 500. In L.A., Sergio staged a master class in unorthodoxy, and the press throng loved every quotable minute of it.
But it was what happened after the Dodge press conference that showed me this guy was not like other car executives.
When most reporters had moved on to their next press conferences, Marchionne slipped quietly out of the wings unaccompanied by his handlers.
Seemingly forgetting that this was a media day and not the public show days when real customers would be walking around, Marchionne approached a photographer who was taking pictures of the Dodge Charger's red leather interior.
Marchionne hesitated, tapped the guy on the shoulder and asked: "How do you like the interior? Would you buy one?"
The photographer briefly turned around and looked at Marchionne as if slightly annoyed at this bespectacled fellow who had the nerve to interrupt his photo session. Clearly not recognizing who had just solicited his opinion, the snapper didn't offer his views on the interior.
Saying he wasn't interested in buying a car at the moment, the cameraman brusquely turned his back on the CEO and resumed shooting pictures. The man who had been asked so many questions seemed flustered by such unsatisfactory answers to his own. Marchionne looked in my direction and muttered: "Nobody wants to talk to me. I can't sell a car."