GRR

Thank Frankel it's Friday: Sergio Marchionne – a man we felt we knew

26th July 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It’s always an unpleasant surprise when anyone dies before their time, but the passing Sergio Marchionne this week has come as a genuine shock to the industry. Not only was he far too young at just 66 years old, his decline swift and almost without warning, but he was as grand a fromage as exists in this business. But I think the real reason his death was felt so far and wide because so many of us felt that we actually knew the man.

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Of course we didn’t, or at least I didn’t, not to the smallest, remotest degree. I’ve asked him the odd question at press conferences, done a ‘round table’ meeting with him and a few other journos, but only once have I had a direct conversation with him. It was at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track which was I was visiting for a test drive. Marchionne turned up unannounced but the timing was such that I’d just been chatting with another journalist about a rumour suggesting Ferrari might be considering building a new Dino. It was no more than that, just a suggestion borne on a whiff of gossip. But there’s rarely smoke without some kind of fire in this business so, on the something for nothing basis and for once feeling like an almost proper journalist I just walked up to him, introduced myself and asked if a new Dino was a question of if or when? He look straight at me and simply said, ‘when’, much to the visible discomfort of the PR man at his side.

It’s just not the kind of answer you get from media-trained industry execs these days. The best will tease you with a Francis Urquhart-grade ‘you might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’ kind of response, those in the middle will say either ‘this is not what we’re here to talk about’ or dangle something and then take it away: ‘we are talking about it, but then we talk about all sorts of things, most of which never see production’. The worst just lie. You never got any obsfuscation with Marchionne, which is why we thought we knew him.

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Which didn’t mean that everyone liked him. He was probably least popular among me and my chums in the motoring press pack. At a now legendary press conference where then Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo replied to my question regarding why he was leaving with a fairly innocuous verbal response, while all the time jabbing a bony finger in the direction of Marchionne who was sat across the room at the time – idly leafing through fabric swatches if I remember correctly. When the spotlight was turned on him, Marchionne loved to joust with the journalists, believing quite correctly that as the man in charge of both the answers and the timetable, he would always hold the upper hand. Sometimes he went too far and could come across as needlessly combative, but most of us quite liked that: you knew that when Marchionne spoke you were never going to be bored.

And you couldn’t argue with the results. I believe that were it not for Marchionne, there’s a very strong chance that Fiat and Chrysler – two historic industry giants – would no longer exist and the same may well have been true for Alfa Romeo and Maserati too. He left the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles empire he created before the job was complete, but he saw it returned to both growth and consistent profit, something many would once have regarded as borderline impossible.

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He leaves behind an enormous job still to be done: the Fiat and Chrysler brands may have survived because of him, but neither is yet in good shape. And Alfa and Maserati are both very early in the recovery process and, as all companies are at this stage, vulnerable as a result. The company is too heavily reliant on its Jeep and RAM brands and on sales in the US. It needs to make much better progress in China and with the development of electric vehicles. As acts to follow go, in this business at least, Marchionne’s must be just about the most daunting of all.

So we’re all going to miss him and his trademark black woollen jumpers. FCA will miss his work ethic, his guts, experience and self-confidence. The rest of us will miss looking forward to finding out what he was going to do or say next. However you regard his contribution, there one thing no one will deny is that this industry will always be that little bit less exciting without him.

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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