The Accountant Who Saved Fiat and Chrysler

Sergio Marchionne, 66, has died. And thus comes to a sudden end one of the most celebrated tenures of a CEO of a major automobile manufacturer. Marchionne, shortly before his death, was the chairman of Ferrari, Fiat Chrysler, and Maserati, not to mention several other other companies and trade groups. Despite this he was little known in the United States before Fiat’s takeover of the bankrupt Chrysler in 2009.

Marchionne was not an automotive engineer, an automotive salesman, or even a automotive corporate executive. He got his precipitous start with accounting leviathan Deloitte & Touche–for whom he worked only for two years starting in 1983. He then proceeded to take a series of increasingly responsible accounting executive positions at yet larger companies, rising to CEO in 1997 and then in a fateful decision the CEO of Fiat in 2004.

It helped that he was fluent in English, French, and Italian. But there was no question that Marchionne’s rise was assisted by a ruthless focus on results–and he got them–firing those that didn’t deliver it. He didn’t tolerate sycophancy–a problem endemic in corporations the world over–but many acknowledged that his outsized ego often interfered with considering the positions of those that disagreed with him.

Under his stewardship Fiat Chrysler paid back the financial crisis loans from the US and Canada years early and returned Chrysler to profitability. Chrysler was repositioned as a US-only brand, while Fiat was firmed up as the non-US brand of choice. Ram Trucks, Dodge, and Jeep were separated from Chrysler sedans for marketing purposes to take advantage their respective strengths domestically and internationally. Alfa Romea and Maserati were reintroduced to the US market as luxury nameplates, relieving Chrysler from having to focus beyond the mass market.

An appropriate eulogy can be found here.

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