Sergio Marchionne, the executive who pulled two ailing carmakers from the brink of collapse and led the improbable transformation of Fiat Chrysler into an automotive giant, died on Wednesday in Zurich. He was 66.
John Elkann, the chairman and chief executive of Exor, the holding company controlled by the Agnelli family, which founded Fiat in 1899, announced the death in a statement.
Mr. Marchionne had been incapacitated about three weeks ago by sudden complications of shoulder surgery, which he had undergone in Zurich. He was reportedly later put on life support. After Fiat Chrysler announced that he would be “unable to return to work,” the company hastily appointed a successor this past weekend.
“Unfortunately, what we feared has come to pass,” Mr. Elkann said on Wednesday. “Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone.”
Mr. Marchionne took over Fiat, in Turin, Italy, in 2004 and spearheaded the acquisition of Chrysler in 2009. On both occasions the businesses were near low ebbs, and few gave him any chance of success. But he defied those gloomy predictions. Today, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ferrari, which was spun off during Mr. Marchionne’s tenure, are worth nearly 10 times as much as they were when he took over.
An Italian-born Canadian, Mr. Marchionne had a reputation as a chain-smoking workaholic, one who forged his career as a tax consultant before moving on to a metals-trading firm and a trade services company.
His legacy was defined, however, by his work in the automotive industry. When he was hired by the Agnelli family to run the company, it was faltering, and they charged him with reversing its long decline.
Acting quickly, he dismissed several executives, pared back production levels to meet demand and eliminated some slow-selling models.
Before long, Mr. Marchionne became closely watched as one of the fastest-moving chief executives in the auto industry.
He also had a quirky side. At news conferences, he entertained reporters with answers peppered with references to philosophers, pop music and ancient history. He once gave a commencement speech at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, that quoted Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein while lauding the city’s long association with Fiat’s Jeep brand.
In 2006, he arrived at a meeting wearing a black sweater and black jeans; deciding that he liked not having to think about his wardrobe, he stuck with that look for years. (He said he kept dozens of identical sweaters and pairs of jeans in each of his homes.)
His business acumen was also repeatedly on display. Soon after becoming chief executive, he took advantage of an existing deal between General Motors and Fiat to attempt to force G.M. to buy the Italian carmaker, a move G.M. had no desire to make. In a high-stakes game of corporate poker, Mr. Marchionne compelled G.M. to pay Fiat $2 billion to end their alliance, and used the money to develop new models, including the Fiat 500, a small car that became a hit in Europe.
His crowning achievement may have been his decision to drive a hard bargain for Chrysler in 2009.
As the Treasury Department in Washington hastened to prevent the collapse of much of the United States auto industry in the wake of the financial crisis, Mr. Marchionne stepped forward with an audacious offer: Fiat would take control of Chrysler, the sickest of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, and provide cars and technology to revive it.
There was a catch, however: The government would have to hand Chrysler over to Fiat free of charge.
It was a hardball offer typical of Mr. Marchionne. But he knew that the Treasury, as well as Chrysler’s creditors and its labor union, had little room to negotiate. The American economy was slipping deeper into recession, the collapse of Chrysler would have meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and no other company was willing to rescue it.
It was the beginning of one of the most remarkable rescues in the auto industry. Today, Fiat Chrysler, while still facing challenges, is solidly profitable, and Mr. Marchionne is revered in the halls of two headquarters, in Turin, Italy, and in Auburn Hills, Mich., north of Detroit.
A confidant of his, Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, a large dealership chain, said Mr. Marchionne had an unusually analytical mind. “He could take a fire hose of complexity and reduce it to its fundamentals in minutes,” Mr. Jackson said. “He had the courage to make very aggressive decisions, and if it went badly he’d be totally accountable for it.”
Mr. Marchionne was born on June 17, 1952, in Chieti, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. His father, a police officer, saved and invested enough to retire early and move his family to Toronto when the young Sergio was 14.
Mr. Marchionne studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Windsor, in Ontario, and a law degree from York University, also in Toronto, before beginning his career as a tax specialist.
He had planned to retire next year before becoming critically ill as a result of his shoulder surgery on July 5. The company chose Mike Manley, the head of Fiat Chrysler’s North America operations and its Jeep and Ram truck brands, to succeed him.
Mr. Marchionne is survived by two sons, Alessio and Tyler, as well as Manuela Battezzato, his companion of the last several years. She is a member of the Fiat Chrysler communications office.
In Italy, where Fiat was synonymous with the country’s postwar economic boom for decades, lawmakers from across the political spectrum paid tribute to Mr. Marchionne on Wednesday, and flags flew at half-staff at Fiat Chrysler’s offices in Turin.
President Sergio Mattarella said Mr. Marchionne had written “an important page in the history of Italian industry.”
The Italian news media broadcast video recordings of Mr. Marchionne’s last public appearance, on June 26, in Rome, where he donated a Jeep to the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police.
Taking deep breaths between words, Mr. Marchionne noted that his father had been a Carabiniere and lauded the group’s “values that were at the basis of my education: seriousness, honesty, sense of duty, discipline and the spirit of service.”
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