By Tommaso Ebhart
I was in a remote village in Italy’s Dolomite mountains on Jan. 1, 2014, when Sergio Marchionne wrecked my vacation yet again.
The snow was falling outside our chalet window and I had just promised my four-year-old daughter that I was going to take her to the slopes the following morning.
Then, as I was opening a bottle of Prosecco, a text message arrived. Fiat had just completed its acquisition of Chrysler after five years of negotiations.
The bottle remained closed on the table as I turned on my laptop, to dismayed looks from my daughter and wife. I wasn’t surprised that the announcement came on New Year’s Day. Marchionne, the chief executive officer, worked seven days a week, every day of the year. And this was his biggest deal ever, the one that would give Fiat a stable future.
Marchionne had dedicated his life to the acquisition since he had watched, five years earlier from his office in Turin, President Barack Obama announcing that Fiat was getting a chance to rescue the American automaker. And even before that, saving the automaker that was the pride of Italy was his obsession.
“I felt a huge sense of responsibility,” he told me in my first sit-down interview with him in 2011, as he sat at a desk cluttered with bankers’ pitches and printouts of spreadsheets, his fixation. Wearing one of his trademark sweaters, he added: “These things happen to you once in a lifetime. I’m a fixer by nature. And so I need to fix this.”
It will be his biggest legacy. After 14 years at the helm of what is now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Marchionne, 66, died Wednesday. He had been was forced to step down Saturday after complications from shoulder surgery. He was replaced by Briton Mike Manley, 54, head of the company’s Jeep division.
Chairman John Elkann, who said he and his family will be “forever grateful” for Marchionne’s achievements, once said that the CEO was downplaying his role by defining himself as a fixer.
“He’s a builder too: a fixer and a builder," he said in a 2014 joint interview with Marchionne at the company’s test track complex in Balocco, surrounded by rice fields in the countryside between Milan and Turin.
I chased Marchionne for about a decade, all over the world. I once drove seven hours over the Alps, then spent hours more in front of a closed door on a frozen Swiss Sunday morning trying to get him to speak, with no success. I got into the Detroit auto show at 6 a.m. via the back door to find him already walking around the carmaker’s stand, hours before his press conference. All he would do is exchange a few words. I fought in the scrum of dozens of reporters following him at every public occasion to ask the first question. My pursuit was so obsessive that when I turned 40 and my friends threw me a surprise party, the cake featured a picture of Marchionne.
It was not easy for Marchionne’s aides and for everyone at the the Italian-American company. He demanded full dedication and had a constant sense of urgency. That cost him some talented executives. Marchionne could also be brutal, which hurt his relationships with CEOs in the industry and with political leaders.
“I don’t have time for BS,” he used to tell me. The son of a policeman, who moved with his family from Italy to a suburb of Toronto at the age of 14, he joined Fiat in 2004 with no experience in the car industry.
Sometimes he evaded me but sometimes he gave in. Outside the NYSE on Ferrari's first trading day as I was interviewing him with Bloomberg Television's Matthew Miller, he called me his ``affectionate stalker''—live on television. In 2012 I figured out he was in Madrid with his counterparts for a European car-association meeting. I waited outside a luxury hotel on a warm June day for several hours. When he got there, he surrendered.
“OK, you can ask me everything,” he said as he started another Muratti cigarette. He then gave me a scoop: Fiat was going to discontinue its best-selling hatchback, the Punto, on the view that the investment would never pay off.
This was a turning point for Fiat. The company had attracted criticism from unions and politicians for moving away from the production of bread-and-butter cars in its home country after over a century. Marchionne said the move would create a future for the automotive industry in Italy as the mass-market brands risked becoming “commoditized” in the upcoming technological revolution.
“If you look at Jeep, Ram, and the premium brands, those are brands that will survive,” he told me in January over dinner at his lakeside mansion about 20 miles from Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, as he pressed me to try all the different kinds of grappas he had. “But if you provide basic transportation, it is like buying a generic phone. The brand that’s most vulnerable to commoditization is Fiat itself.”
It paid off: He managed to boost Fiat’s share value by over 10 times during his tenure. But Marchionne always felt he had to convince people he wasn’t just a “deal maestro” but a real car guy.
He showed his car expertise when he invited me for a ride in his black Ferrari Enzo, presented by Elkann and former Ferrari chief Luca Cordero Di Montezemolo, on the Balocco track. As he swiftly accelerated on the oval to over 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph) he shouted: “When you’re pissed off, there’s nothing better than this!”
He had reasons to feel that way at times. In Italy, he was accused of taking Fiat away from its home country after years of subsidies. The leftist union Fiom, one of his regular adversaries, said he cut workers’ rights, bringing contracts closer to U.S. standards rather than the very regulated Italian deals. He pledged to bring back full employment at Italian plants, but he didn’t manage to complete his plan by 2018.
The CEO had planned to retire in April 2019. At the dinner in Michigan, the night before his last Detroit auto show, he acknowledged the time was coming to spend more time with his partner.
“This business, if you want to do it at least the way I think it should be done, it is all -consuming," he said, describing 14- and 16-hour days doing everything from approving Super Bowl commercials to deciding on electric cars. “Now I am tired, I want to do something else.”
The Dolomite ski vacation in 2014 was a tough one for me: writing stories and doing radio appearances while trying not to disappoint my daughter, Matilde, on the ski slopes. I must have let that slip to someone at Fiat.
When we returned to our home in Milan, there was a hand-written letter in the mailbox, addressed to Matilde Ebhardt. It included a gift, a small music listening device.
“I’m sorry to have ruined your holiday by keeping your father busy,” it read. It was signed by Sergio Marchionne.