Sergio Marchionne, former Fiat Chrysler CEO, dies

Auto legend Sergio Marchionne, the executive who turned Fiat and Chrysler around before combining the automakers as a profitable business, has died.

Posted: Jul 25, 2018 11:33 PM
Updated: Jul 25, 2018 11:33 PM

In 2009, in his first address to employees at Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne invoked the Zulu greeting "sawubona."

It means "I see you." And the traditional response is "sikona," or "I am here."

"The sequence of the exchange is important," Marchionne said. "Until you are seen, you do not exist. From my end, I can simply tell you that I see you. I am glad you are here."

They were glad he was there, too.

Employees at Chrysler had suffered through months of crisis that ended in a government-controlled bankruptcy.

The speech was quoted in a book written by Steven Rattner, who worked with Marchionne to save Chrysler. The words surely meant the world to its beleaguered workers, who had suffered through months of crisis that ended in a government-controlled bankruptcy.

No other auto executive would have introduced himself that way. But then not many others could have done what he did. Marchionne, who died Wednesday at age 66, was an outsider to the industry who saved not one, but two car companies.

Related: Sergio Marchionne, the CEO who saved Fiat and Chrysler, dies at 66

Marchionne became the CEO of Fiat in 2004, his entry into the auto industry.

He quickly reversed a string of quarterly losses at the Italian automaker, and re-introduced the tiny Fiat 500, a model that now defines the brand globally.

A strengthened Fiat then became the savior of crippled Chrysler, with Marchionne as CEO.

By the 2008 financial crisis, Chrysler's competitiveness had suffered through the years of its merger with Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler and later ownership by Cerberus Capital Management.

Through those years, the quality of Chrysler's newly introduced products deteriorated to the point that some weren't remotely competitive. Marchionne himself would later call the Dodge Caliber "an abomination."

When America's economy crumbled, Chrysler needed help to survive, and Fiat seemed a perfect partner.

Fiat wanted to get into the US market, and Chrysler needed some good small cars. Marchionne was the right man, too.

He resurrected both Fiat and Chrysler by never thinking like an insider.

Most auto industry CEOs wear a suit and tie, which require care in their selection and in their maintenance. As CEO, Marchionne always wore black sweaters. Sweaters are easy to care for and easy to pack, and no decision-making is required just to get dressed for work. It doesn't matter that no other auto executive dressed this way. He did what made sense.

He took the same tack with the businesses he ran.

He was clearheaded and outspoken. Often brutally so.

After he took over Chrysler, he quickly announced a new leadership team, and just a few months later two of his top executives left the company as Marchionne rearranged things again.

In Marchionne's unusual management structure, some people were given multiple roles. Ralph Gilles, for instance, was initially both CEO of the Dodge brand and head of product design for all of Chrysler. Fred Diaz was named CEO of the newly created Ram truck brand and head of marketing for the whole company. (Gilles is now head of design for all of Fiat Chrysler. Diaz later left the company and is now CEO of Mitsubishi North America.)

When it came to dealing with the media, he expected discipline from those who worked for him but exhibited refreshingly little of it himself. A press conference with Marchionne was always an interesting and entertaining event.

He freely criticized his own company's products and performance in public forums. He once admitted that the launch of the Dodge Dart, a car engineered under his leadership, hadn't gone well. The car wasn't initially offered with the engines and transmissions Americans would have preferred, he said. In the long run, the Dart was pulled from the market because, as it turned out, Americans had largely turned away from small cars.

While other auto industry captains were boasting of their enthusiasm for electric cars, Marchionne admitted that they were expensive to make and that there was, at present, little market for them.

In 2013, he complained openly that Fiat was losing money on the Fiat 500e, an electric that California rules required it to sell there.

When reporters wondered what would become of Fiat Chrysler without Marchionne, he expressed confidence in the people he expected would take over for him.

"I think the leadership will be the right leadership and that's all that matters," he said at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

He isn't handing over control of the company he helped build in the way, or at the time, that he had planned. But at least he was able to leave things in hands he helped to choose.

-- Peter Valdes-Dapena has covered the auto industry for CNNMoney for 18 years.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 28770

Reported Deaths: 1092
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds224739
DeSoto144216
Madison124234
Jones109149
Neshoba97070
Lauderdale89479
Rankin86012
Forrest82942
Harrison79410
Scott75715
Copiah58016
Leake56519
Jackson55716
Holmes53641
Wayne52212
Lee51816
Oktibbeha51625
Washington5129
Yazoo4786
Leflore47449
Warren46317
Lowndes45912
Lincoln43734
Lamar4317
Grenada3965
Pike39312
Monroe37529
Lafayette3684
Attala35523
Newton3329
Sunflower3216
Covington3175
Bolivar29813
Panola2956
Adams28018
Simpson2713
Chickasaw26418
Tate2648
Marion26311
Pontotoc2616
Jasper2516
Noxubee2478
Pearl River24532
Clay24410
Winston2446
Claiborne23910
Marshall2123
Smith21111
Clarke20424
Coahoma1906
Union1819
Walthall1794
Kemper17614
Yalobusha1667
Lawrence1621
Carroll16111
Humphreys1309
Itawamba1308
Tippah12711
Webster12610
Calhoun1244
Montgomery1242
Hancock12313
Tallahatchie1153
Jefferson Davis1074
Prentiss1003
Greene968
Jefferson963
Wilkinson929
Tunica903
Amite842
George753
Tishomingo731
Choctaw724
Quitman690
Perry634
Alcorn601
Stone541
Franklin392
Benton270
Sharkey270
Issaquena81
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 41362

Reported Deaths: 983
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson4532143
Montgomery3875102
Mobile3797134
Tuscaloosa210739
Marshall162210
Lee124537
Shelby110923
Madison11047
Morgan10203
Walker87123
Franklin86314
Dallas8419
Elmore83614
Baldwin7359
Etowah64413
DeKalb6415
Butler60727
Chambers60027
Tallapoosa57269
Autauga55312
Unassigned50724
Russell5030
Lowndes45820
Lauderdale4576
Houston4464
Limestone4290
Cullman4114
Pike4075
Colbert3775
Bullock3649
Coffee3592
Barbour3331
Covington3327
St. Clair3192
Marengo29911
Hale29621
Escambia2936
Wilcox2848
Talladega2827
Calhoun2805
Sumter27912
Clarke2686
Dale2620
Jackson2522
Winston2373
Blount2181
Pickens2176
Chilton2152
Marion20613
Monroe2052
Choctaw19212
Randolph1889
Conecuh1866
Greene1788
Macon1778
Bibb1761
Perry1541
Henry1303
Crenshaw1243
Washington1027
Lawrence1000
Cherokee797
Lamar711
Geneva700
Fayette671
Clay612
Coosa571
Cleburne301
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 73°
Feels Like: 85°
Columbus
Broken Clouds
80° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 85°
Oxford
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 79°
Starkville
Broken Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 78°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather