Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA), the world's eighth largest car maker, has died after being in an irreversible coma after complications during extensive shoulder surgery. Michael Manley, the current head of the Jeep brand, replaced him at the head of the 10-brand motor maker with immediate effect once the extent of his illness was confirmed at the weekend.
Marchionne, one of the most mercurial, controversial and successful car industry executives, suffered 'unexpected complications' (later reported as an embolism) last week while convalescing from shoulder surgery a few weeks ago.
Bloomberg in the US and the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported Marchionne's death earlier today.
Marchionne, 66, held dual Canadian and Italian citizenship. He joined Fiat from the SGS Group of Geneva in May 2003, becoming chief executive of the Group a year later.
He proved a shrewd, hands-on manager orchestrating a revival of the Fiat Group in Europe with cars like the Panda and the 500 as well as leveraging heavy investment in new plant and production equipment, much of it in Italy.
Marchionne's biggest coup will be seen as the merger with the then moribund Chrysler Group, which had just emerged from Chapter 11 bankrupcy in 2009 when Fiat, along with the United Autoworkers Union and the Canadian Government, were the major investors.
Fiat started with a 20 per cent stake rising to 58 per cent in 2012 and in 2014 it bought the remaining shares from the UAW creating a wholly-owned subsidiary, and later that year merged both companies into the FCA.
It was a stunning coup; Marchionne had acquired the smallest of the America's "Big Three" car makers, including the iconic Jeep brand, for a bargain $4.9 billion, plus a $5.5 billion pension liability.
Extraordinarily quick-witted and astute, Marchionne's business style was informal, favouring black cashmere jumpers and open-neck shirts rather than traditional suits. He would hold court, lit cigarette in hand (though he'd given up in recent years), inviting questions from journalists and investors and hitting them clear out of the park. He was a tough manager, but a generous interlocutor taking time to answer even the least well-constructed question.
"If you haven't got anything to say, don't have a press conference not to say it," was one of his most famous adages.
His laser-like clarity came as a refreshing change in a complicated world of car making, where overlaying priorities tend to become confused. Having set out one of his clear and simple five-year strategies for the company, he was once asked about what seemed an equally important but unaddressed issue for the Group.
"Yes that is important," he admitted, "but this is what we're doing right now; you can't deal with everything all at once."
Not all of Marchionne's five-year plans were a complete success and he failed to fix Fiat's traditional weakness in larger cars, which had proved a thorn in his side. Similarly the Fiat-owned luxury brands of Alfa Romeo and Maserati have still not realised their potential despite serious investment in new plant and models as well as a revolving door of management talent.
Marchionne burned through managers and most of the ones he kept looked as though a good night's sleep would kill them. Nevertheless he's going to be sorely missed in a world where car executives come on a conveyor belt out of the same Master of Business Administration (MBA) schools, and seldom express anything approaching an opinion.
Michael Manley, 54, is British and a trained engineer with a sales background. He came to Chrysler via the failed 1998 'merger of equals', Daimler Chrysler, and stayed in various executive roles becoming head of the Jeep brand in 2009. He presided over a turnaround of the 4x4 maker's fortunes by concentrating on brand values, re-establishing the Wrangler as an iconic model and launching three brand-new vehicles.
Total sales have risen from 497,000 in 2008 to about 1.406 million last year. He's seen as a tough guy (tough enough to have survived Marchionne's tenure) with a soft-spoken, thoughtful approach to making vehicles, but steeped in Marchionne's financial discipline.