Contested but admired, loved and hated. Sergio Marchionne was a character who didn’t leave anyone cold. He made the headlines across the world for having saved the giant car company Fiat Chrysler, but in Italy he was also known for the controvertial battles he carried out against trade unions, to make labour contracts more flexible.
We are aware that 2018 was dominated by politics and especially by the rise of the right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, the true master of the current Italian government’s fate. However, Marchionne, who died just last July, marked an era for Italy, America and the world. So, we decided to celebrate both virtues and influence, more than just influence. For this very reason, we have assigned our first “Italian of the Year” to Sergio Marchionne, almost as a lifetime achievement award.
Sergio Marchionne was born in Chieti, Abruzzo, following the relocation of his parents from Istria after World War II, when the region was then occupied by the Yugoslav army. At the age of thirteen, he emigrated with his family to Toronto, Canada. The manager had thus a dual Canadian and Italian citizenship, speaking both Italian and English fluently. In North America, he studied and took three degress in Philosophy, Economics, Law, plus a master in Business Administration.
However, the most important appointments of his life were waiting for him on this side of the Atlantic as, after years working between Toronto and Geneva, he was called back to Italy, and more precisely to Turin.
The man who saved Fiat
Sergio Marchionne got the assignment in 2004, few days after the death of the patron Umberto Agnelli, and spent fourteen years in charge of Fiat, getting popular stateside and abroad for restoring Fiat Group, the biggest Italian company, which in recent years has been also one of the fastest growing groups in the automotive industry.
At that time, the company did not produce net growth and was not paying dividends already since 2002. However, in 2005, he took the decision not to sell the capital to the American company General Motors, which already had a put option to buy it. The same year, Fiat could already boast 1,4 billions in profits. In 2007, having tipped the balance, he launched the new model of Fiat 500, declaring that he wanted “Fiat to become the Apple of the future”. And that “Fiat 500 will be our iPod”.
In 2009, he came even more to prominence when he successfully managed to convince Barack Obama, the U.S. government and local trade unions to form a strategic alliance between the historic Turin-based car maker company and the American counterpart Chrysler, saving thousands of jobs in Michigan and other states of the Midwest. From that moment, the American car market began to recover.
In 2012, after several successful consolidation efforts which led to the present situation, he remembered that “success is never permanent, you got to earn it day after day”. Following this trail, in 2014, he concluded the merger between Fiat and Chrysler, forming the seventh-largest automobile holding company in the world: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Known for his informal negotiation style and clothing, he rarely used to wear ties, as he got “way too much work to do”. In 2007 he declared that “Italy is one of the greatest countries, but also one with the most untapped potential that I know. A country that does not love itself. On the headlines, you can only read about arguments and disputes that don’t have any impact on Italy and on the future of young people. If we don’t stop these debates, we won’t go very far”.
The manager, and this goes without saying, was at the center of the world’s political relations, having directly negotiated and interacted with both Obama, who always pointed out their reciprocal personal affinity, and the current US president Donald Trump. Also Italian politicians, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi amongst all, tried to pursue and convince him to take part to the elections, but he always stayed out of politics. In retrospect, we can say it was the right choice.