The object lesson of a hero denied his just rewards

A reality check the last couple of weeks is both an intellectual and emotional challenge.

One of my business heroes at sixty-six passed away July 25 after surgical complications, only a month after presenting a grand five-year business plan for the international company he forged with a multinational merger. His plans to retire in 2019? Time for a still relatively young wife and family? None of that will happen. He literally gave his life to the business.

Sergio Marchionne was an Italian-born Canadian and lawyer turned business wizard. In his career, he saved two car companies from bankruptcy. First Italian automaker FIAT. FIAT’s brands included Ferarri, Maserati, Alfa Romeo,  FIAT, and more. And then Sergio did the impossible. He saved Chrysler (including its Dodge, Ram, and Jeep brands). Under Marchionne, FIAT Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) dug its way out of debt and is now poised for future success with a strong Jeep brand, a stellar new Ram pickup, a resurgent Alfa Romeo line-up, and key partnerships including an autonomous vehicle deal with Google’s Waymo.

Sergio Marchionne was a workhorse of a leader. Inspiring. Brilliant.

I have a soft spot for Italian cars with passion from the tiny FIAT 500 Abarth, to Alfa Romeo’s superb sports-luxury masterpieces, to Ferrari’s Prancing Horse supercars and Maserati’s Trident badge bespoke-quality luxury. Ferrari was recently spun out of FCA as an independent company of which Sergio was also CEO.

Sergio critics complain he was great at using other people’s money to run car companies. That includes successive deals with the Italian government (to rescue FIAT), a $2B merger breakup fee from pre-bankruptcy GM, and then the US Government paid FIAT $12.5B to rescue bankrupt Chrysler in the wake of the Great Recession.

I always thought the governments were calling in the talent cavalry to save jobs. Sergio was the only high-level auto executive willing to risk his reputation on doing the impossible. And he always proved nothing is impossible, some things just can’t be done by the critics. He started with a $2B car company and in fifteen years created a $78B titan. The price to get Sergio working for American jobs was cheap for the results.

My evaluation parallels many others. Here’s a Sergio salute from Seeking Alpha’s Ben Comston.

FCA paid more than $10B of the bailout back to the U.S. and delivered a functioning, competitive auto company with more than 60,000 U.S. employees. That’s 25,000 new employees since the 2008 rescue.

And Bloomberg writes, “How Do You Follow Sergio Marchionne?”

A winning team of losers

I admire Sergio for forging a winning team from the industrial cast-offs of two continents. His compelling personality was hard to resist. And he loved to drive the cars his companies make.

If anyone deserved a chance to kick back and enjoy great wine, his beautiful wife, and loving kids? It was Sergio Marchionne.  He was a workhorse of a leader. Inspiring. Brilliant.

But we don’t always get what we deserve. We can’t always get what we want. Sometimes the odds come out against us.

I don’t really want to die in the saddle. My wife wants some of my remaining time. And I with her.

I could slave ten more years and never approach the heights of business success of Sergio Marchionne. Or his well-earned wealth. But given the chance, I think Sergio would have chosen to trade some of his business intensity for family time. Maybe not. He reveled in the leadership and helping his team succeed. He knew how to have fun at work. He hasn’t been caught in a tie since 2008.

We’ve got enough wealth to enjoy the wine and time. We’ll still have high purpose but part of our purpose is sharing time together.

A Recurring Lesson

One of the recurring lessons we keep hearing? Jump to the next stage of life before you think you’re ready. Sergio is a reminder. Late June he was the center of a press and investor whirlwind with big plans for the future. Then what was reported as minor shoulder surgery. Complications. He was only 66. The difference of a month. The celebration of a career that should have been his retirement party? He’ll never hear or enjoy. That’s a cruel reality. And a spur to make the leap to retirement. Not working so hard for the purpose of others. Make sure you serve your high purpose. And invest some of the time in family and relationships.

5 ways Sergio saved Chrysler

Car and Driver — Sergio Marchionne: 1952-2018

Motor Trend — Loss of a Legend

Financial Times — Sergio Marchionne and The Nature of Leadership

“Perhaps because he had never internalised the culture of the industry, he recognised what needed to be done and had the audacity to think it possible.  . . Leadership that leads to real change is exhausting, and Marchionne’s work habits were legendary.  . . He will be remembered more for the way he did the job: sticking to his own strategic vision in the face of risk and criticism, speaking his mind plainly, demanding the most from himself and his team, and always holding himself accountable. This model of leadership saved two companies from failure. The reason more leaders do not follow it is probably because so few have the energy, intelligence and will of Marchionne.”