CAR’s Ge­org Kacher on FCA’s Ser­gio Mar­chionne

Ser­gio Mar­chionne, who died sud­denly in July, trans­formed Fiat in his 14 years in charge. A phe­nom­e­nally eec­tive industrialist, he lived life to the full.

CAR (UK) - - News - 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 con­ver­sa­tions since he was ap­pointed as chief ex­ec­u­tive 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 ex­cess 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 Mu­ratti 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-man­age­ment 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 ten­ure 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.

He’d ar­rive at the Balocco test track just to burn rub­ber in his Enzo

For­mer FCA and Fer­rari chief Ser­gio Mar­chionne:bright and fast

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