Sergio Marchionne, who died Wednesday at the age of 66, was little known when he took the driving seat at Fiat in 2004.
But he won the respect and admiration of Italy’s politicians, unions and media alike by turning the ailing Italian carmaker around without massive job cuts.
And he subsequently merged Fiat with the troubled US group Chrysler in 2009, transforming the combined entity into a global player that boasted a record performance in 2017.
The visionary Italian-Canadian executive had already been preparing to hand over control of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2019.
But FCA announced at the weekend that he was gravely ill in hospital in Zurich after suffering serious complications following surgery on his right shoulder last month.
And FCA’s holding company Exor, which is owned by the Agnelli family, announced his death on Wednesday.
“It is with the deepest sadness that Exor has learned of the passing of Sergio Marchionne,” it said in a statement.
The eulogies had already begun to pour in at the weekend on the news that Marchionne was stepping down as head of FCA.
Marchionne’s “story is a great Italian story,” former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had said on Sunday, saying he had come to “symbolise Italian ingenuity” for the world.
Born in 1952 in the central Italian town of Chieti, Marchionne emigrated with his family to Canada, when he was just 14, settling in Toronto.
He studied philosophy, law and management in Canada and his first job there was as a tax specialist at Deloitte and Touche.
“I spoke English with a strong Italian accent, it took me over six years to lose it. That was six years lost with girls,” he said in an interview with Turin-based daily La Stampa in 2009.
– Outspoken workaholic –
Marchionne’s outspoken nature and Anglo-Saxon outlook on business frequently raised hackles in Italy.
But his strategy for turning Fiat around — slashing costs, launching new models and focussing on design — enabled the Italy’s biggest private-sector employer to drive back to profit after four years in the red.
A notorious workaholic, Marchionne never shied away from making tough demands on Fiat’s 65,000-strong workforce, either, as in 2007 when he decided to bring forward the launch of the new Fiat 500 by three months.
“We had our differences… but together we challenged the lazy little Italy that prefers to close factories rather than roll up their sleeves,” said Marco Bentivoglio, general secretary of the CISL union’s metalworkers branch, on hearing about Marchionne’s illness.
The financial crisis of 2008 didn’t faze him either, and he made possibly his smartest move just as the walls of the global economy were crashing down.
In January 2009, Fiat announced a strategic tie-up with Chrysler. And after the US company emerged from bankruptcy in June that year, Fiat — and Marchionne — took operational control without having to pay a penny.
A car fanatic and especially passionate about the luxury car brand Ferrari, Marchionne divided his time between his three homes in Turin, Switzerland and Detroit.
A divorced father of two, he died on Wednesday surrounded by his partner Manuela, and his two sons, Alessio and Tyler.