Remembering Sergio Marchionne

photo by Valeria Mitsubata

Italian-Canadian icon (IT)

by Laura Guzzo

talian immigrants in Canada in the 1960s were not groomed to be internationally renowned CEOs. Success was generally measured in more modest terms: buy a house, have enough money to raise a family, find (and keep) a steady job at a reliable company and send your kids to school.

Sergio Marchionne – the former CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) who died suddenly in July 2018 – turned that narrative on its head, becoming a unique and notable success story and an icon amongst Italian-Canadian immigrants.

From studious young man to one of the most revered CEOs in the automotive business – The Economist described him as “one of the all-time stars of the car industry” – Marchionne forged a path that is to be admired, much like he was. “I’ve been a reporter for 30 years and he was the smartest individual I have ever met,” says Automotive News journalist Larry Vellequette, who covered Marchionne’s career extensively. “His annual press conferences at the Detroit Auto Show were standing room only. Everybody wanted to go just to hear what he would say.”

He had the same humble beginning as many, immigrating to Toronto from Abbruzzo when he was 13. He worked hard and studied hard, earning degrees in philosophy, law and business from the University of Toronto, the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University and the

University of Windsor, respectively. “He was always smart,” says Tony Di Poce, a lawyer from Vaughan who first befriended Marchionne in high school at St. Michael’s College School. “When you’re a kid, you don’t think in those terms but, looking back, he had the analytical skills and focus for success – more so than most of us at that age.”

He began his career as an accountant with Deloitte & Touche in Toronto and started climbing the management ladder, becoming CEO at Algroup in Zurich from 1997 to 2000. He then took over the helm at Lonza Group in Basel. In 2002, he became CEO and managing director of SGS S.A. in Geneva.

By 2004, the man who used to drive a Fiat in high school was offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

At the time, Fiat was desperate to find a CEO to help turn its fortunes around. Having run through a succession of top executives with little to show for it, the company took a gamble on the unknown Canadian with the trademark rumpled black sweaters and blunt personality.

As CEO, Marchionne used his lack of experience in the automotive world to his advantage, looking at the venerable industry with a fresh eye. He was big on consolidation, believing that if companies pooled their resources together in areas such as research and development spending, they could achieve results that could benefit everyone. After Fiat received a 20% stake in the Chrysler Group following its emergence from bankruptcy protection in 2009, he pushed to merge the two companies – a move that many other auto CEOs never had the guts to go through with. The risk paid off, making FCA the seventh-largest automaker in the world. “He wasn’t part of the old boys’ club,” says Di Poce. “His detachment from the car business and his analytical and intuitive skills made him able to step back and have a clearer view of what was going on.”

His work ethic is now legendary. Journalist and friend Giorgio Beghetto describes a man who would regularly wake at 4 a.m. and bounce from meeting to meeting and location to location with seemingly boundless energy. “I remember calling him on his mobile phone. He’d answer in Switzerland and the next day he’d be in Russia, then in India. I don’t know how he did it. He’d tell me ‘Sono stanco’ – because we spoke to each other in Italian – but then he’d be right back at it.”

In spite of his brilliance, he could be mercurial, though his ability to speak off the cuff was refreshing – especially in a world of overly media-managed CEOs. “He hated to repeat himself,” Beghetto says. “As a reporter you had to be on your toes to ask him a unique question.”

Vellequette has no shortage of words to describe him, calling him at once brilliant, arrogant, temperamental, opportunistic, talented, captivating, infuriating and stubborn.

He could be quite the taskmaster too, with a laser-sharp focus on results and often making the tough decisions no one else wanted to make. “Sergio was an absolute pragmatist,” says Beghetto. “He would take the time he needed to ponder his decisions but, once he made up his mind, he never looked back. If he needed to deliver bad news, he’d always do it in person and without mincing words. He was pragmatic in his work and in his life right to the end.”

Despite some of his harsher characteristics, his softer side often shone through. “What struck me about Sergio from the very beginning, when we met to talk about the possibility of him coming to work for the Group, even more than his management skills and unusual intelligence, were his human qualities, his generosity and the way he understood people,” wrote John Elkann, head of the Agnelli family-held holding company Exor, FCA’s largest shareholder, in a statement. “He taught us to think differently and to have the courage to change, often in unconventional ways, always acting with a sense of responsibility for the companies and their people.”

Beghetto remembers his thoughtfulness and generosity. “When he would ask ‘How are you?’ he meant it. It wasn’t just a platitude. I remember one time at an event where we ran into each other, he looked at me and said, ‘Your tie is horrible.’ Two weeks later, he sent me two Marinella ties from Naples.”

Though he was a global CEO, he never lost sight of Canada. “He always talked about how proud he was to have come from Ontario,” says Vellequette. “Just to give you an idea of how Canadian he considered himself: every Italian I know pronounced his name the Italian way – Marchionne. He didn’t. He always Canadianized the pronunciation and called himself Marsheeon.”

“He came to Toronto as often as he could to visit his family, especially his mother, with whom he was very close, and to feel anonymous, which was impossible in Italy,” says Beghetto. “His success was something to really be proud of,” says Di Poce. “We were all young Italian-Canadians from immigrant families, and he was someone you could hold up as a role model. Once he started being more of a public figure, people would point to him and see him as someone who was smart and did well and did us proud.”