Sergio Marchionne, the man who saved Fiat and Chrysler, dies at 66

Sergio Marchionne, the tenacious chief executive who rescued Fiat and Chrysler, two of the auto industry's most storied brands, has died after complications from recent surgery, at the age of 66

‘I like to fix things,’ Marchionne said when he became CEO of Fiat in 2004
‘I like to fix things,’ Marchionne said when he became CEO of Fiat in 2004

Sergio Marchionne, one of the auto industry's most demanding and tenacious chief executives, who rescued Fiat and Chrysler, two of its most storied brand, has died after complications from recent surgery. He was 66.

The gruff chief executive spent 14 years at the wheel of Fiat Chrysler, the group he built. He was replaced as boss last weekend after his condition worsened.

In Italy, where his turnaround of Fiat earned him legendary status, he was treated like a rock star. The former philosophy student and accountant almost never wore a tie and preferred casual sweaters, half-joking that it saved him time on dressing.

A heavy smoker until giving up the habit a year ago, he was known for working extraordinarily long hours before falling ill. He demanded others keep a similarly grueling schedule, earning him a reputation from friends and foes alike for being stubborn and arrogant.

"I feel like I live in a tunnel. He is not just demanding; he wants all your life devoted to him," said one banker who worked with Marchionne on various deals in recent years. Some could not keep up with his round-the-clock approach.

In his last public appearance on June 26, wearing his signature sweater, Marchionne appeared fatigued and out of breath as he presented a Jeep Wrangler to Italy's paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, at a ceremony in Rome.

Days later, he went to Switzerland to undergo what Fiat Chrysler (FCA) described as a shoulder operation. FCA has not said what happened after he left the operating theater, but according to media reports in Italy, the surgery was for an invasive sarcoma he had known about for some time but had not revealed to his boss, FCA Chairman John Elkann. The reports say he underwent a risky surgery in Switzerland but developed a cerebral embolism on the operating table that left him in a coma.

In an emergency board meeting at the weekend, FCA chose the head of its Jeep division, Mike Manley, as his successor. This afternoon, Elkann announced that the longtime CEO had passed away, saying: "Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone."

Marchionne has done what many thought impossible, most notably his huge gamble just over a decade ago when he set in motion the marriage between the then-ailing Fiat with bankrupt US rival Chrysler. It is now the world's seventh-largest carmaker and is debt-free.

"Sergio was a unique blend of a visionary and an executor. He combined a grand vision and the ability of getting things done. This is a real tragedy," said Domenico Siniscalco, a former Italian finance minister, now country head at Morgan Stanley Italy.

In the clubbish world of Italian business, where change often happens slowly and chief executives bend to the prevailing political wind, Marchionne stood out as an exception, taking on trade unions and rowing publicly with politicians.

He pulled Fiat out of Confindustria, Italy's top business group, determined to negotiate directly with unions rather than pursue national wage bargaining via Confindustria.

"Those of us watching have received an education in management, finance, politics, oratory and what's possible via sheer force of will," Bernstein analyst Max Warburton said.

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