Sergio Marchionne, the visionary Italian-Canadian who left an indelible mark on the global auto industry, has died at age 66.
His death Wednesday in Switzerland came days after he stepped down officially as chief executive officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. He died from complications after shoulder surgery. Italian newspapers reported that he suffered an embolism during the surgery and sustained brain damage.
His crowning achievement as one of the prominent industrialists of the 21st century is the creation, survival and now financial success of Fiat Chrysler. He first restored a battered Fiat to profitability after joining the Italy-based company as chief executive officer in 2004.
By 2008, it was strong enough to be the last hope to keep Chrysler from tumbling into liquidation during the Great Recession.
A decade later, when Mr. Marchionne presented a five-year business plan on June 1, the combined company was headed out of debt.
News of his death came just hours before Fiat Chrysler reported its second-quarter financial results that confirmed the car company is now in a net cash position.
His successor, Mike Manley, called for a moment of silence on the company’s conference call to mark the former CEO’s passing.
“Having spent the last nine years of my life seeing or talking to Sergio almost on a daily basis, this morning’s news is heart-breaking,” Mr. Manley said. “There is no doubt that Sergio was a very unique, special man.”
There were tributes both on the call and from his rivals.
“A light has gone out, a very bright light,” said industry analyst Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, who had, on the company’s first-quarter conference call all but begged Mr. Marchionne to stay and not leave the company in early 2019, which was the original plan before he fell ill.
“Sergio Marchionne was one of the most respected leaders in the industry, whose creativity and bold determination helped to restore Chrysler to financial health and grow Fiat Chrysler into a profitable automaker,” Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford said in a statement. “His extraordinary leadership, candour and passion for the industry will be missed by everyone who knew him.”
Added former federal government official David Moloney, who negotiated with Mr. Marchionne during the government bailout of Chrysler in 2009: “Sergio was an honourable man who made a real difference in the world: A great many people have good jobs today in Canada and far beyond as a direct result of his genius, imagination and hard work.”
One measure of his success is financial performance. When the combined Fiat Chrysler began trading publicly in October, 2014, its market capitalization was about US$11-billion. It now exceeds US$30-billion.
Mr. Marchionne was born in Chieti, Italy, in 1952 – the son of a police officer – and moved to Toronto in 1966.
He attended St. Michael’s College School and went on to earn a philosophy degree from the University of Toronto, a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, and commerce and MBA degrees from the University of Windsor.
“Ferrari lost a saviour, Fiat and FCA lost a saviour, we older friends from high school, we lost a friend,” said Palmacchio (Pal) Di Iulio, who attended St. Michael’s with Mr. Marchionne in the 1960s.
Mr. Di Iulio said Wednesday that he and friends saw that the young Marchionne would go places.
“When he was in Grade 9 he was already 6 foot 1, he already spoke three languages, he had strong opinions,” he said. “We knew he had that extra thing … somehow he had that extra gear or he could have that extra gear should things line up for him. And things lined up for him. He worked hard.”
He last saw his friend at a fundraising event at a Toronto Ferrari dealership that was held last year to raise money for Italian earthquake relief.
Mr. Marchionne’s first rise to prominence in business came at Swiss pharmaceutical and chemical giant Alusuisse Lonza Group Ltd.
His success there was noticed by the Agnelli family, the founders and controlling shareholders of Fiat, who tapped him to be CEO.
He restored Fiat to financial health, in part by insisting General Motors Corp. pay off a US$2-billion put option it had taken out on Fiat’s auto business.
He wrote in the Harvard Business Review about changing Fiat by slicing layers of management and empowering people to make decisions.
He applied similar tactics at Chrysler. He also shifted much of that car company’s product mix to pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and crossovers, catching the shift in consumer trends that is reshaping much of the North American industry.
But it was his personal style, candour and lack of fear in speaking his mind that made him stand out from other executives in the auto industry.
There were, of course, the sweaters – always black on top of a blue or blue-checked shirt. He once said he bought them by the boxload and not having to choose what to wear every day saved him three seconds of precious time.
His extraordinary Confessions of a Capital Junkie is another testament to his refusal to be an orthodox CEO.
In that 2015 document and a conference call defending it, he described the auto sector as a huge destroyer of capital and urged industry players to consolidate to reduce costs and better address the coming deluge of new technology in electric vehicles and new government regulations.
His preferred target was GM, which rejected his advances.
“It was all very logical, but seemed rather pointless, since analysts and investors already knew all this and agreed with it,” analyst Max Warburton, who followed the company for Sanford C. Bernstein, said in a research note after Mr. Marchionne’s departure was announced on Saturday.
Mr. Marchionne would often call and berate him for comments in reports, Mr. Warburton recalled, but his outbursts were always temporary.
More lasting was his anger about a planned investment in Fiat Chrysler’s Canadian operations becoming a political football in 2014 during the run-up to an Ontario provincial election, when he was seeking financial assistance from Queen’s Park and the federal government to retool the company’s Ontario assembly plants in Windsor and Brampton.
"I am Canadian," he said at the Toronto International Auto Show in the midst of the debate. "I'd do a variety of things for this place that will twist me into a pretzel."
But weeks later he withdrew the request and said Fiat Chrysler would finance the redevelopment of its Windsor minivan plant on its own.
In 2016, the Ontario government of Liberal Kathleen Wynne announced it would provide $86-million in financing for the rebuilding of the plant and development of a new minivan.
“He was a brilliant visionary. He was a tough customer but very, very smart and I think had a global vision of how the auto sector could move forward,” Ms. Wynne said in an interview Wednesday. “I think the thing that was most impressive about him was how engaged he was. This was a man who had global reach – and very powerful – but he was so down-to-earth in terms of wanting to get things done.”
Mr. Marchionne’s annual news conferences at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit were usually the highlight of the event for reporters who cover the auto industry.
He would charm, joke, disparage, talk about his philosophy of running the business and often criticize himself and the company he was running.
When The Globe and Mail asked him at the 2017 news conference how much government help he was seeking for a new paint shop at an assembly plant in Brampton, Ont., he immediately responded: “As much as I can get,” before adding an explanation and urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take to Twitter the way President Donald Trump had done.
His last major public appearance before the media and analysts – with whom he delighted in jousting verbally during conference calls on the company’s financial results – was on June 1 when he presented a new five-year business plan.
He began the final session of a daylong series of presentations on the company’s brands and financial outlook by playing a version of the song Is That All There Is?, a lament about a life whose events never lived up to expectations.
“Nobody laughed, nobody noticed,” he told the analysts as they gathered to grill him for what turned out to be the final time. “We’re doing this to amuse you.” Had any of them asked, Mr. Marchionne would likely have offered a treatise on how the song was based on a short story by German writer and essayist Thomas Mann.
His choices of music at company events and speeches, peppered with references to philosophers and thinkers, showed another way that he was different from traditional car company chief executives.
At the unveiling of the first combined Fiat and Chrysler business plan in 2009 at Chrysler’s design studio in Auburn Hills, Mich., when many questioned whether he made a huge mistake and predicted a disaster, he played Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
A few months later, when he spoke to the annual Automotive News World Congress for the first time after the Chrysler deal, his speech quoted Mark Twain, Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper.
He later pointed to his philosophy degree as something that held value.
“I can’t say if philosophy made me a better lawyer back then or if it makes me a better CEO today,” he told a graduating class at the University of Toledo in 2011.
“But it did open my eyes and my mind to other things.”
He leaves his sons, Alessio and Tyler, and his partner, Manuela Battezzato.