Carey

SER­GIO MAR­CHIONNE HAD JUST 54 DAYS LEFT TO LIVE WHEN HE AR­RIVED AT BALOCCO PROV­ING GROUND IN EARLY JUNE. THAT DAY AT FIAT CHRYSLER AU­TO­MO­BILES’ IM­MAC­U­LATELY GROOMED TEST FA­CIL­ITY IN NORTH­ERN ITALY WAS THE LAST TIME I SAW THE CHIEF OF THE WORLD’S EIGHTH-LA

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Balocco, co­in­ci­den­tally, was also the place I first en­coun­tered the ex­ec­u­tive I came to think of as Sweater Man. That was back in 2010, at the in­ter­na­tional launch of the Alfa Romeo Gi­uli­etta. No-one there that day could ig­nore the black Fer­rari Enzo loudly lap­ping Balocco’s han­dling track dur­ing the lunch break.

The driver was Mar­chionne, but we didn’t know that un­til he climbed out of the su­per­car. Wear­ing, of course, a black sweater. Chances like this are too good for any jour­nal­ist to ig­nore. My­self and an­other Aus­tralian got to him first, and, if I re­mem­ber rightly, to some quotable quotes on what was hap­pen­ing with the re­place­ment for the Alfa 159. Soon he was the cen­tre of a mul­ti­lin­gual hud­dle, fir­ing some­times acidic an­swers to ques­tions in both English and Ital­ian.

It was an im­pres­sive per­for­mance. Some se­nior auto in­dus­try lead­ers would have been un­com­fort­able in such a sit­u­a­tion. Mar­chionne in­stead seemed to rel­ish it. His eru­dite wit and gruff can­dour made him a rar­ity, but jour­nal­ists ask­ing in­sipid or in­so­lent ques­tions ran the risk of sar­casm or scorn from Sweater Man.

But the se­ri­ous side of Mar­chionne was on dis­play at Balocco back in June. He was there to ring­mas­ter FCA’S Cap­i­tal Mar­kets day. Held ev­ery five years, th­ese are big, care­fully or­ches­trated, day-long events de­signed to build confidence among in­sti­tu­tional in­vestors and an­a­lysts in the com­pany’s fi­nan­cial health and fu­ture plans.

While the herd of in­vestors and an­a­lysts watched the se­ries of pre­sen­ta­tions by Mar­chionne and other FCA ex­ecs in the au­di­to­rium where they were made, the me­dia mob had to make do with a feed to a big screen in a nearby Balocco work­shop tem­po­rar­ily con­verted into a press cen­tre. But later, Mar­chionne came to join the jour­nal­ists for a bit of quick-fire Q and A.

There was con­sis­tency dur­ing the lat­ter years of Sweater Man’s 14-year reign. The 2018 to 2022 plan keeps the fo­cus on Jeep, FCA’S only truly big-time brand at present, and aims for fur­ther ex­pan­sion of high-profit Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Ba­si­cally more of the same. The real news from Balocco was an Fca-wide shift to­wards elec­tric and elec­tri­fied ve­hi­cles and away from diesels, and the big­ger role planned for pick-up maker Ram.

FCA is a weird cor­po­rate crit­ter, dif­fi­cult and dif­fer­ent. It’s a bunch of spe­cial­ist brands un­like any other global group or al­liance. Mar­chionne’s sen­si­ble strategy was to in­vest most in brands with the best chances of mak­ing money, and to trim back those brands whose time is past, like Fiat and Chrysler. Mar­chionne was a man un­afraid of change. Tellingly, the two brands baked into the very name of the com­pany he shaped are now rel­a­tively unim­por­tant parts of FCA. But the de­ci­sions he made be­fore dy­ing in a Zurich hospi­tal af­ter shoul­der surgery in late July will con­tinue to af­fect the fu­tures of Alfa, Maserati and Jeep for decades to come.

John­carey THE LEGACY OF SWEATER MAN

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