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Sergio Marchionne, auto executive who brought Chrysler back from the brink, dies at 66

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2009 file photo, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne addresses the media during a news conference at the automaker's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. On Wednesday, July 25, 2018, holding company of Fiat founding family said Sergio Marchionne, who oversaw turnarounds of Fiat and Chrysler, has died. [Carlos Osorio | AP file]
FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2009 file photo, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne addresses the media during a news conference at the automaker's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. On Wednesday, July 25, 2018, holding company of Fiat founding family said Sergio Marchionne, who oversaw turnarounds of Fiat and Chrysler, has died. [Carlos Osorio | AP file]
Published Jul. 25, 2018

Sergio Marchionne, the master negotiator who engineered one of the most brazen automotive deals in history when he convinced the U.S. government to sell bankrupt automaker Chrysler to Itay's Fiat, and turned the combined Fiat Chrysler into one of the most profitable firms in the industry in less than a decade, has died. He was 66.

The holding company of the Agnelli family, which founded Fiat, announced the death Wednesday, but gave no immediate details on the cause.

Last week, Fiat Chrysler announced Marchionne's replacement as chief executive as his health worsened following shoulder surgery in Zurich.

"Unfortunately, what we feared has come to pass. Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone," said a statement from Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann, a member of the controlling Agnelli family.

Industry analysts expressed confidence with his successor, Mike Manley, who headed the company's Jeep and Ram division. Marchionne had already planned to retire next year.

But there appeared to be a sense of frenzied panic about what comes next for the company Marchionne had grown with astonishing success, much of it credited to his charismatic and frank personality, his negotiating prowess and his indefatigable work ethic.

The Italian born, Canadian-raised Marchionne vaulted to instant fame in auto circles at the peak of the U.S. financial crisis in 2009, when he wedged himself into the center of negotiations in Washington about what to do with failing auto giants General Motors and Chrysler, both on the brink of bankruptcy.

Marchionne became involved with then president Obama's Auto Task Force and convinced officials that Fiat, which he had run for only five years, was the right partner for Chrysler.

On April 30, 2009, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and, on June 10, Fiat and Chrysler announced the merger of the two companies, with Marchionne as chief executive.

"So the industry looks like its going to sink into oblivion and this fellow who wears this black sweater, chain smokes and drinks gallons of espresso manages to insert himself and convince these people that the best alternative for Chrysler to merge with Fiat," said Maryann Keller, a leading automotive industry analyst. "On it's own it doesn't make any sense."

While the initial terms gave Fiat a 20 percent stake in Chrysler - the U.S. and Canadian governments, along with the United Auto Workers Union, held the rest - the Italian carmaker could claim another 15 percent equity if it met certain requirements.

Marchionne is survived by two sons. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Following his law degree, Marchionne began working as an accountant and tax officer at Deloitte & Touche in Toronto. Between 1985 and 2000, he served in executive roles for the Toronto packaging company Lawson Mardon Group, among other firms in the city. In 2002, he was named chief executive of a Swiss testing and certification company and joined the board of Fiat SpA in 2003. The next year, he became chief executive and, in 2006, was made chief executive of Fiat's auto division.

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He immediately began a turnaround of the troubled carmaker, cutting costs and whipping it into shape financially. By 2009, he was in Washington, negotiating one of the biggest auto deals of his era. Just two years later, Chrysler made its first profit ($183 million) since 2005, and paid back its $6 billion federal bailout six years before it was due.

"I remember when I came here in 2009," he told "60 Minutes" in 2012. "There's nothing worse for a leader than to see fear in people's faces. It's been a long, rocky road, but the fear is gone."