Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler and Ferrari until Saturday, died Wednesday after complications from shoulder surgery. He was 66.
“Unfortunately, what we feared has become to pass,” Agnelli family scion and chairman of Fiat Chrysler’s holding company, Exor, said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone.”
Marchionne was a tax consultant, a metals trader, and worked in trade services before the Agnelli/Elkann family tapped him to save Fiat in 2004. He used the $2 billion General Motors paid not to buy the Italian auto giant to develop the modern Fiat 500, and then went on to take Chrysler off the U.S. Treasury department’s hands following its 2009 bankruptcy.
When Marchionne turned the tables and saved Fiat with Chrysler profits in the early ‘10s, then paid off Treasury loans early, “Sergio,” as we all called him, noted that it took a thousand Fiats to equal the profit of one Jeep Grand Cherokee. He famously asked customers not to buy his Fiat 500 EV “because every time you buy one it costs me $14,000.”
Marchionne’s background and education was not auto-related. He studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, earned an MBA from the University of Windsor, and a law degree from Toronto’s York University. But in a 2012 interview with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” Marchionne revealed his passion for driving fast cars, and lamented that Fiat Chrysler limited his driving Ferraris to closed tracks.
The New York Times noted that both Fiat and Chrysler are “worth nearly 10 times as much as when he took them over.” The Wall Street Journal reported that his death “marks the end of an era in Detroit where he was one of the last larger-than-life CEOs.”
“Our thoughts are with Sergio Marchionne’s family and friends, as well as the entire Fiat Chrysler team,” GM CEO Mary Barra said at the beginning of a conference call with analysts after the company reported its second-quarter earnings Wednesday. “I think we all agree Sergio Marchionne will be remembered for his many contributions to the industry.”
“Sergio Marchionne was one of the most respected leaders in the industry whose creativity and bold determination helped to restore Chrysler to financial health and grow Fiat Chrysler into a profitable global automaker,” Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford said, in a written statement. “His extraordinary leadership, candor and passion for the industry will be missed by everyone who knew him. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time.”
The FCA Group, via Twitter, where most of these condolences were communicated, said “All of us at [Fiat Chrysler] feel privileged to have worked alongside a courageous leader like Sergio Marchionne, a man of enormous humanity and intelligence. In this moment of sadness, we join with his family in remembering him with immense affection.” Those words were echoed in a similar tweet from Scuderia Ferrari.
The words reflect what auto reporters heard repeatedly from employees after the Fiat Chrysler merger in 2009. Employees at the North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, said they were revitalized by the culture and atmosphere Marchionne brought to the new company, and were happier than they had ever been to be working for him, even if he demanded they put in long hours on weekends and holidays.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “He was a giant in the industry, a friend of the Italian-Canadian community, and a visionary in the corporate world. Sergio Marchionne’s death is a huge loss, and Sophie and I send our condolences to his family and friends.”
At fia.com, FIA President Jean Todt, who led the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team from 1994 to 2007, said “Sergio achieved a colossal amount for the automotive industry and motor sport worldwide. He dedicated himself fully to turn around the Fiat Chrysler Group and put all his energy to bring Scuderia Ferrari back to the top. He was an endearing, upstanding and brave man, an unconventional and visionary leader.” Marchionne was “an eminent member” of the FIA F1 Strategy Group and of the FIA High-Level Panel for Road Safety, he added.
Retired Ferrari F1 hotshoe Felipe Massa posted a post-race photo of Marchionne hugging him, on Instagram.
“Sergio Marchionne’s contributions to Formula 1 are immeasurable,” tweeted Chase Carey, F1 chairman and CEO.
Turin, Italy’s Juventus Football Club tweeted that the team would take to the field wearing black armbands Wednesday night.
Red Bull Racing called him “a great competitor on and off track.”
“The auto industry has lost a real giant. And many of us have lost a very dear friend: Sergio Marchionne,” tweeted Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, who competed with him both in the luxury consumer marketplace and on the F1 circuit.
In his statement, Exor chairman Elkann concluded, “I believe the best way to honor his memory is to build on the legacy he left us, continuing to develop the human values of responsibility and openness of which he was the most ardent champion. My family and I will be forever grateful for what he has done.”