There’s an old joke in the automotive industry that a Fiat won’t run for very long before needing repair. Fiat? You mean “Fix It Again, Tony.” The punchline for the Italian automaker, which reentered the U.S. market in 2011 following its acquisition of a bankrupt Chrysler, has been so persistent among English-language speakers that the company turned around and embraced it in a 2014 television ad. In the spot, Italian mechanics fix a broken down Honda Civic by replacing it with a Fiat 500X. “We fix it,” they tell the Civic’s bewildered owner, beaming.
On Wednesday, the man who fixed Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, died at age 66. His death was sudden—a surprising turn of events following complications from shoulder surgery. For 15 years, the Abbruzzese executive, clad in his signature slouchy black sweater, had stood up in defiance of global market forces that seemed almost certain to put the Italian industrial giant to bed. That his health were to take a fatal turn as he was arranging for his replacement to take the helm seems too ironic. (Mike Manley, the British head of Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep brand, has been named Marchionne’s successor. “This is a very sad and difficult time,” he said during a conference call announcing the company’s quarterly results.)
But Marchionne delighted in irony. His ascendance to Fiat’s top job in 2004 happened only after the death of chairman Umberto Agnelli, one of the heirs to the dynasty of Fiat’s founding Agnelli family, setting in motion “a series of dramatic weekend maneuvers,” as the New York Times aptly described it at the time, that put Marchionne—then the CEO of its testing services unit SGS—in control of Turin’s crown jewel. Tasked with turning around what was once Europe’s leading automaker, Marchionne extracted the carmaker from a joint venture with General Motors, took control of Chrysler’s assets, and spun off parts of Fiat—from tractor maker CNH Industrial to supercar icon Ferrari—to give it the cash to invest in new platforms that underpin well-received models such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia.
Marchionne leaves behind a Fiat Chrysler with nearly no net debt and a five-year plan studded with electric cars, autonomous driving technology, and ample profit potential, in part by offering vehicle financing directly to buyers. But the automaker is hardly out of the woods. Another sea change is afoot in the auto industry, and rivals General Motors and Ford are aggressively slimming down their portfolios to focus on profitable SUVs. With Jeep and Ram, Fiat Chrysler is well positioned, but it too must adjust. Meanwhile, the sitting U.S. president has made his preference for American-made cars (and everything else) clear.
But Marchionne managed to do what few executives did before him: fix Fiat. “He’s a builder, too,” chairman John Elkann, great-great-grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, said of the late CEO in a joint interview with him in 2014. “A fixer and a builder.”