The Sergio Marchionne I Knew
Sergio Marchionne, who died suddenly in July, transformed Fiat in his 14 years in charge. A phenomenally efective industrialist, he lived life to the full. By Georg Kacher
THE POSTURE SLIGHTLY ducked, the stout body always teetering on the edge of haste, the wiry hair tamed now and then by a five-finger comb, both hands rolled to fists in the trouser pockets, the hamster cheeks bobbing with the about-to-erupt verbal avalanche of arguments and objections. Like this: ‘Why do I
invest in Alfa and not in Lancia? Because history and tradition don’t pay my rent unless I spend big to bring the marque up to date. Too bad I don’t have the money to save both iconic brands. It’s hard enough to turn around Alfa and Maserati because more and more customers jump on the SUV bandwagon. Sports cars are still okay for the moment, but sedans are fast going out of fashion, and this hurts. Even our most complete three-box offering, the new Giulia, is not performing to plan.’
There was always plenty more like that, as I discovered in our various conversa- tions since he was appointed as chief ex- ecutive of Fiat in 2004, when it was losing billions. He was an outsider – a trained lawyer and accountant who specialised in industrial turnarounds. That’s just what he did at Fiat: cut costs, laid off workers, and made it profitable within two years.
That wasn’t the end of his success – it was the beginning. He went on to rescue Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy, turning Jeep into a booming global brand, and lucratively spinning off Ferrari. A huge task awaits new Fiat-Chrysler CEO Michael Manley and new Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri.
Marchionne wasn’t always right. His early projections of production volumes were so far off the mark they became the laughing stock of the trade. But he became an increasingly shrewd pragmatist and tactician. When the market fell in love with SUVs, he lost no time in pumping funds into the Jeep and Ram brands, which became the group’s turnaround heroes.
The seasoned captain of industry was a man of many talents.
He could recite Proust from memory, was a connoisseur of opera, felt equally at home in stock exchange trading and jurisprudence, and steered clear of old-boy networks and shady political cliques.
He’d cross the Atlantic up to three times per week in search of better return on investment. He was obsessed with synergies, deal-making and sheer size. Marchionne was not your typical car guy; he was also suspicious of German-style engineering ex- cess which involved riskily big investment and paltry earnings.
He’d occasionally arrive on a Sunday morning at the Balocco test track in his black Enzo, burning rubber just for the heck of it.
And he loved V8 engines, the bigger the better. His most recent object of desire was a 707bhp Dodge Hellcat. At each of his four main retreats, there was at least one Ferrari in every garage.
The first of our long interviews involved two and a half hours in his tiny office in a far corner of the Lingotto complex. Sitting behind an imposing sandalwood desk, he started the afternoon by playing two of his favourite Puccini arias at deafening volume while the room quickly filled with smoke from half a dozen Mu- ratti Privat fags. Chortling and coughing, he gave me the spiel about one particularly memorable evening in La Scala, pulled out a photo signed by Maria Callas, then – juggling three mobile phones and scribbling notes on a tiny pad – he’d complain that FCA didn’t move fast enough in Asia; that losing market share in Italy was an ongoing problem; and so much more.
When we met for the second big interview, in the top-manage- ment dining room, Marchionne was in a chipper mood, but his thoughts were already on the next steps.
‘We did well, but we also had good fortune on our side. For a change, the solid economy did not punish slow followers.
Instead, conventional product like trucks and SUVs went from strength to strength.
Jeep was thus our biggest profit driver by a long shot.’
Life under Marchionne must have been hell for under-performers and wannabes, and even corporate heavyweight Manley did not have an easy time under one of the brightest and fastest thinkers in the business. Sergio the multi-tasker with seemingly infinite stamina looked under the weather at the Geneva show in March but at the New York show in April he was in better shape again, immediately agreeing to a last sit-down before the end of his ten- ure at FCA. While his partner Manuela Battezzato, who worked in the press department, was thumbing through her November diary, Marchionne cut her short. ‘Don’t bother fixing a date right now. Come autumn, I’ll have all the time in the world.’ He couldn’t have been more wrong. Ciao, Sergio.