My memory of Sergio Marchionne

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Car journalist PETER FREALANSER reflects on the FCA boss who died earlier today

I will never forget the first time I met Sergio Marchionne. It was a cold, wet day in Detroit and I was there for the infamous auto show of the same name. Quite unexpectedly I spotted him striding across the lobby of my hotel, cutting a distinctive figure in his trademark jeans and sweater combo and made a bee-line towards him with the hope of asking him a couple of questions about his controversial stewardship of Fiat and Chrysler. “Mr Marchionne,” I said loudly. “Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

Without breaking step, the great man turned his head slightly, his eyes burning with intensity behind his trademark glasses, his inquisitive look betraying the towering intellect and eye for detail that saw him turn around the fortunes of Fiat in Italy and, perhaps more impressively, the ailing Chrysler Group in the USA, pulling them back from the brink of ruin with his trademark combination of straight-talking, tough decision making and steely nerve. As we kept travelling across that wide lobby on that chilly day in Michigan the air seemed to warm slightly in his presence and I was able to breath in some of that balmy oxygen for the brief second it took him to pause in response to my request and to fix me with the trademark iron stare that had made him the doyenne of the stock markets and installed an icy fear in the hearts of his key staff as they strove to avoid the no-nonsense wrath of this infamous workaholic. The legendary autocrat’s mouth opened slightly as he formulated his response to my impertinent request and all too quickly it came. “No,” he said. With that, he was gone into a waiting car, ready to be chauffeured away to his next appointment. That was my first encounter with Sergio Marchionne and also my last, but it’s got me past the 300 word mark so let’s keep going.

In many ways, my meeting with Marchionne all those years ago said an awful lot about the man himself and his trademark management style for in business, just as in that American hotel lobby, he was always moving, always heading forwards, never pausing for even a second in his quest to save and cultivate FCA in a brilliant masterplan that sought to transform it from a company that lost money into a company that actually made money. In the shadow of his sad passing, I find it useful to reflect on the success of that mission because I’m now 400 words in and they’ve asked for at least 500.

We’ve done the jeans and the jumper but it’s also worth dedicating a paragraph to some other things that will pad this out. Those who worked with him say he was powered by a constant stream of espresso coffee and cigarettes of a brand I haven’t got time to look up because Roger says he needs this obit really quickly for the online edition. I think I read somewhere that he had a really good sense of humour so let’s go with that for now, and also that he used to swear a lot, and generally that he had a personality that was quite distinctive, and I certainly saw that one the one time I spoke to him for about 20 seconds.

Let’s not dwell on that now because the main thing is I’ve managed not to write the phrase “great character” until the last paragraph so I can relax and use it now in my conclusion, having well passed the word limit which means I will have no qualms about attaching an invoice when I file the copy in a minute. Sergio Marchionne was outspoken, inspirational and sometimes controversial but I think ultimately what I will remember about the great man when all is said and done is that he gave me just enough material to submit a hastily written obituary about him.