As you’ve no doubt heard by now, July 25th marked the passing of an automotive giant. Sergio Marchionne, former CEO of FCA and Ferrari died today from complications stemming from surgery. He was only 66.
Marchionne was as grandiose a figure in the world of mass manufactured automobiles as he was controversial. The straight-talking Marchionne was perhaps best-known for his revival of not one but two failing automobile companies, FIAT and Chrysler. He took charge of the former in 2004 and the latter in 2009, at times when no sane businessman would have ever thrown his hat into either ring.
Marchionne’s success, first at FIAT and then at FCA, depended on a simple principle: sell cars that people want to buy.
FIAT did just that, as it released model after successful model in the world’s largest car markets, starting with the Panda and 500 revivals. On the consumer side, Marchionne was the reason why most young people in Europe and the US do not immediately associate FIAT with “rusty mess”, unlike their parents. Cheap, utilitarian car-making was at the heart of Italian automobile manufacturing after the war, and Marchionne bought into that philosophy from the beginning of his tenure as CEO.
This progress came at a cost, however, for car production in Marchionne’s native Italy. His fiscal tenacity saw the movement of several car plants outside of the country which, in the past, had bailed out FIAT many times over. The results of these moves justified the means to Marchionne,who set his sights on expanding FIAT to north America not long after. The acquisition of parts of a bailed-out Chrysler brand eventually led to a merger which formed the third largest automotive group in the world under Marchionne’s tutelage. The move returned Italian brands to the US for the first time in decades and opened up an entire generation of Americans to a brand-new car culture.
While his successes were seen across America, his influence and directorship was known throughout 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,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company. “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.”
We see the evidence of his efforts touring the streets of Washington and Oregon: tiny little Fiats roaming around the big cities, a revitalized MOPAR belting out beautiful chords and spewing rubber across roads and race tracks, and a more-hardy, user-focused, and incredibly bonkers Jeep and RAM.
While new CEO Mike Manley, who formerly led Jeep and Ram, is set to take over FCA, it would be naïve to think that future FCA products would be built using the same production philosophies of Marchionne.
For a car scene in Seattle that had just gotten used to treating weekend Ferrari drives as regular cars and coffee meets, it remains to be seen if new design leadership will reset car communities here in the US.
Thank you, Sergio Marchionne. Thank you for your the joy you’ve brought to MOPAR or Italian auto enthusiasts. Your revivalist spirit will be missed.