Last week, the automotive industry bade farewell to one of its most iconic figures. The passing of Sergio Marchionne, former Chief Executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, following an embolism after shoulder surgery, marked the end of a remarkable tenure at the helm of the world’s seventh-largest vehicle manufacturer. To rescue one failing company is an achievement in itself. To breathe new life into two is something else again. Yet, this is what he did. By overseeing the complex merger of Chrysler and Fiat, finalised in 2014, he revitalised both companies into the true global automaker we see today.
Marchionne held dual citizenship of Italy, the land of his birth, and Canada, the country to which his family emigrated when he was just 14 years old and where he was educated and first entered the world of business. Amongst his automotive peers he may have seemed like an eccentric. Not for him the bespoke tailored suits and plush offices. He was known for his habitual wearing of a black jumper. I recently saw a photo of him greeting former US President Barack Obama while dressed in just such a jumper. Apparently, his reason for choosing such attire was that it saved him several seconds of decision-making when getting up in the morning! He preferred a small office in Chrysler’s technical centre in Detroit to the palatial surroundings to which his rank would have entitled him. He felt it brought him closer to the engineers and product planners with whom he kept in regular contact.
Undoubtedly, he was a workaholic. I remember having a conversation with one of his senior American colleagues in New York a few years ago who told me that it was not unusual for his phone to ring at three in the morning on a Sunday. Guess who was calling. Marchionne’s lifestyle was not a healthy one. Apart from clocking up endless hours on transatlantic aircraft, he existed on a regimen of cigarettes and espresso coffee until quitting both about a year ago as his health began noticeably to decline. As a smoker and coffee drinker I have taken note!
Simon Duval Smith
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