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John Carey remembers Sergio Marchionne

By John Carey, 14 Oct 2018 Opinion

John Carey remembers Sergio Marchionne

The legacy of sweater man

Sergio Marchionne had just 54 days left to live when he arrived at Balocco Proving Ground in early June. That day at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ immaculately groomed test facility in northern Italy was the last time I saw the chief of the world’s eighth-largest carmaker in action.

Read next: FCA’s Five-Year Report Card

Balocco, coincidentally, was also the place I first encountered the executive I came to think of as Sweater Man. That was back in 2010, at the international launch of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. No-one there that day could ignore the black Ferrari Enzo loudly lapping Balocco’s handling track during the lunch break.

The driver was Marchionne, but we didn’t know that until he climbed out of the supercar. Wearing, of course, a black sweater. Chances like this are too good for any journalist to ignore. Myself and another Australian got to him first, and, if I remember rightly, to some quotable quotes on what was happening with the replacement for the Alfa 159. Soon he was the centre of a multilingual huddle, firing sometimes acidic answers to questions in both English and Italian.

Read next: Sergio Marchionne dies aged 66

It was an impressive performance. Some senior auto industry leaders would have been uncomfortable in such a situation. Marchionne instead seemed to relish it. His erudite wit and gruff candour made him a rarity, but journalists asking insipid or insolent questions ran the risk of sarcasm or scorn from Sweater Man.

But the serious side of Marchionne was on display at Balocco back in June. He was there to ringmaster FCA’s Capital Markets day. Held every five years, these are big, carefully orchestrated, day-long events designed to build confidence among institutional investors and analysts in the company’s financial health and future plans.

While the herd of investors and analysts watched the series of presentations by Marchionne and other FCA execs in the auditorium where they were made, the media mob had to make do with a feed to a big screen in a nearby Balocco workshop temporarily converted into a press centre. But later, Marchionne came to join the journalists for a bit of quick-fire Q and A.

Read next: Mike Manley appointed head of FCA

There was consistency during the latter years of Sweater Man’s 14-year reign. The 2018 to 2022 plan keeps the focus on Jeep, FCA’s only truly big-time brand at present, and aims for further expansion of high-profit Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Basically more of the same. The real news from Balocco was an FCA-wide shift towards electric and electrified vehicles and away from diesels, and the bigger role planned for pick-up maker Ram.

FCA is a weird corporate critter, difficult and different. It’s a bunch of specialist brands unlike any other global group or alliance. Marchionne’s sensible strategy was to invest most in brands with the best chances of making money, and to trim back those brands whose time is past, like Fiat and Chrysler.

Marchionne was a man unafraid of change. Tellingly, the two brands baked into the very name of the company he shaped are now relatively unimportant parts of FCA. But the decisions he made before dying in a Zurich hospital after shoulder surgery in late July will continue to affect the futures of Alfa, Maserati and Jeep for decades to come.

Leaving his light on

Sergio Marchionne was 66 and had planned to retire in April 2019. FCA chairman and great-great-grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, John Elkann, made a point of praising Sweater Man’s work at Balocco in June. “My family has aimed to strengthen this company,” the 42-year-old told us in the post-event press conference. “I have never seen a brighter future.”