Belfast Telegraph

Fiat and Chrysler turnaround king Sergio Marchionne dies

The 66-year-old turned Fiat Chrysler into the world’s seventh-largest car manufacturer.

Sergio Marchionne, who engineered turnarounds to save car companies Fiat and Chrysler from near-certain failure, has died aged 66.

The holding company of the Agnelli family, which founded Fiat, confirmed the news on Wednesday after it was reported Mr Marchionne had developed complications following surgery in Zurich.

Mr Marchionne joined Fiat in 2004 and led the Turin-based company’s merger with bankrupt US car maker Chrysler.

He built the dysfunctional companies into the world’s seventh-largest car manufacturer.

Mr Marchionne was reported to have had surgery for a shoulder problem about three weeks ago in Switzerland.

Fiat Chrysler said on Saturday that due to his deteriorating health, Mr Marchionne “will be unable to return to work”.

“Unfortunately what we feared has come to pass,” Fiat heir John Elkann said on Wednesday. “Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone.”

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Mr Marchionne revived the fortunes of the ailing car giants (AP)

Mr Marchionne, who was Italian-Canadian, turned the two firms around almost by personal force of will, living on a corporate jet crossing the Atlantic to push employees to accomplish what most people thought was impossible amid a devastating global recession.

He had revived Fiat by 2009 when he was picked by the US government to save Chrysler from its trip through bankruptcy protection after being owned by a private equity company.

“It’s highly unlikely that Chrysler would exist today had he not taken that gamble,” said Autotrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs. “The company was in such bad shape, being stripped of any kind of resources by the previous owners.”

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John Elkann, president of the FCA Italy group, right, jokes with Mr Marchionne (AP)

Mr Marchionne met most of his goals, even though at times he was doubted by nearly everyone in the car industry. However, he didn’t live long enough to complete his last two aims: personally hand over the reins of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to a hand-picked protege, and lay out plans for transforming supercar maker Ferrari.

The manager, known for his folksy, colourful turns of phrase and for his dark cashmere sweaters no matter the occasion, was the darling of the automotive analyst community.

Even when expressing doubts at his audacious targets, they expressed admiration for his adept deal-making. That included getting GM to pay two billion dollars to sever ties with Fiat, key to relaunching the long-struggling Italian car maker, and the deal with the US government to take Chrysler without a penny down in exchange for Fiat’s small-car technology.

Mr Marchionne joined Fiat after being tapped by the Agnelli family to save the company. Fiat had for generations been a family-run enterprise, and having someone at the helm from outside Italy’s clubby management circles – even a dynamo like Marchionne – was an enormous change.

Other key corporate moves included the spin-off of the heavy industrial vehicle and truck maker CNH and of the Ferrari supercar maker.

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He was also Ferrari chairman and CEO (AP)

Both deals unlocked considerable shareholder value for Agnelli family heirs led by John Elkann.

Mr Elkann came into his own under Mr Marchionne’s stewardship, taking over as chairman in 2010 having been tapped more than a decade earlier by his grandfather, the late Gianni Agnelli, to run the family business.

As Marchionne’s health failed following surgery, a clearly emotional Mr Elkann delivered what amounted to an impromptu eulogy and message of gratitude to a man he called his mentor.

Mr Elkann said over the weekend: “He taught us to think differently and to have the courage to change, often in unconventional ways, always acting with a sense of responsibility for the companies and their people.

“He taught us that the only question that’s worth asking oneself at the end of every day is whether we have been able to change something for the better, whether we have been able to make a difference.”

Mr Marchionne was divorced. He is survived by his companion, Manuela Battezzato, and two adult sons.

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