Sergio Marchionne, who merged Fiat with Chrysler, dies at 66

Sergio Marchionne, the man credited with saving two automakers and then bringing them together to become a global powerhouse, has died at the age of 66.

The Italian-born, Canadian-bred executive suffered an apparent stroke after what had been billed as "routine" shoulder surgery last week, spending the last several days on life support at a Swiss hospital. Set to retire next year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles revealed the degree of his health problems on Saturday when it announced that Marchionne would immediately be removed as CEO and replaced by the 54-year-old Mike Manley.

"Unfortunately what we feared has come to pass. Sergio Marchionne, man and friend is gone," said FCA Chairman John Elkann, heir to Fiat's founding Agnelli family which still owns a controlling stake in the trans-Atlantic automaker.

Sergio Marchionne through the years
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Sergio Marchionne through the years
Viag chairman Wilhelm Simson (R) looks at Sergio Marchionne, the Algroup chief executive officer during a news conference in Zurich November 27. Alusuisse-Lonza Holding AG, also known as Algroup, announced that it will merge with German conglomerate Viag AG. The new group will be based in Munich and will be headed by current Viag Chairman Wilhelm Simson. CR/KM
Vice President of business Development of Fiat Afvedo Altavilla Tefas (L), Managing Director of Tata Motors Ravi Kant (2nd L), Chairman of TATA group of companies Ratan Tata (C), Chief Executive of Fiat Sergio Marchionne (2nd R) and Managing Director of Fiat India Fillippis Giovanni pose after unveiling Tata's cars at the Eighth Auto Expo in New Delhi January 13, 2006. India's Tata Motors Ltd. and Italy's Fiat agreed on Friday to share their dealer networks in India and abroad, offering both carmakers access to new markets while keeping costs down. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore
Fiat chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne stands in front of the new Fiat Ducato van during the international launch in Turin, northern Italy, May 22, 2006. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca
FIAT chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne (R) and Chairman FIAT LCV Loris Sestino pose with the engine of a Fiat Ducato van before a news conference for the international launch of the van in Turin, northern Italy, May 22, 2006.
Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne poses for photographers with a new Bravo car in Rome January 31, 2007. Fiat brand head Luca De Meo said on Tuesday he aimed to almost double the Italian automaker's share of the most important car segment in Western Europe with the launch of the Bravo. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (ITALY)
Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne poses for photographers with a new Bravo car in Rome January 31, 2007. Fiat brand head Luca De Meo said on Tuesday he aimed to almost double the Italian automaker's share of the most important car segment in Western Europe with the launch of the Bravo. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (ITALY)
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne stands during the new Cinquecento Fiat car press conference in Turin July 5, 2007. Italy's Fiat unveiled a new version of the Cinquecento at a big, televised event in its hometown on Wednesday, marking the return of the tiny, iconic car after being out of production for 32 years. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo (ITALY)
Fiat group's Chief Eexcutive Officer Sergio Marchionne watches from the box the Italian F1 Grand Prix race in Monza September 14, 2008. Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel of Germany won the race ahead of McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen of Finland and BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica of Poland who finished third. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (ITALY)
Fiat SpA and Chrysler LLC Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne looks into a 2011 Dodge Ram Laramie Longhorn at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles November 17, 2010. Fiat plans to introduce a four-door version of its 500 small car to the U.S. market in 2012 as it builds on the brand's return to the market after a quarter century, Marchionne said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Fiat and Chrysler LLC Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne smiles during a news conference after the Fiat Group's annual shareholder meeting in Turin March 30, 2011. Marchionne said on Wednesday he wanted to raise the Italian carmaker's stake in Chrysler to 51 percent this year. REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino (ITALY - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS HEADSHOT)
Chrysler Group and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne addresses the media during a visit to the Chrysler Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan April 28, 2011. Chrysler Group LLC, which came to the brink of collapse before a federal bailout in 2009, plans to fully repay more than $7 billion in loans from the U.S. and Canadian governments by the end of June. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne looks on during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (not pictured) to mark the presentation of new "Jeep Renegade" car at Chigi palace, in Rome July 25, 2014. REUTERS/ Max Rossi ( ITALY - Tags: POLITICS TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne (L) shakes hands with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone during the Italian F1 Grand Prix in Monza September 6, 2015. REUTERS/Max Rossi Picture Supplied by Action Images
FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne poses next to the new Alfa Romeo car Stelvio during an event at an FCA plant in Cassino, southern Italy, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Italian oil major Eni's CEO Claudio Descalzi speaks with Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne during a meeting to present an agreement on research in alternative fuels and carbon-cutting technologies in Rome, Italy, November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne speaks during a media conference in Balocco, northern Italy, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca
FCA group CEO Sergio Marchionne speaks during the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team presentation in Arese, near Milan, Italy December 2, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne leaves at the end of news conference in Balocco, northern Italy, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

Considered a tactical wizard, Marchionne was a relative latecomer to the auto industry when he was tapped by the Agnelli family to serve as a board member at the then seriously troubled Fiat in 2003. He was elevated to CEO a year later, quickly righting the floundering Italian company.

Marchionne became a global brand in his own right when, in 2010, he announced that Fiat would step in to help the bankrupt Chrysler. The smallest of the domestic U.S. carmakers had, along with cross-town rival General Motors, been forced to file for Chapter 11 protection as a result of the Great Recession. But while then-President Barack Obama authorized a federal bailout for GM he was initially reluctant to rescue Chrysler until Fiat stepped in.

Over the next several years, Fiat and Chrysler began to combine their operations while Marchionne steadily bought out the shares held by others participating in the Detroit automaker's rescue. Finally, after acquiring the last stake, granted to the United Autoworkers Union in return for worker concessions, Marchionne formally combined the two companies into Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Those who have worked with him over the years have described him as a force of nature, constantly on the move, winging from Chrysler's headquarters in the Detroit suburbs to Fiat's old home in Italy, while also making stops at FCA's legal headquarters in London.

"He's an extra-dynamic individual with endless energy," said David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, when the first word of what FCA initially described as an unexpected turn for the worse in Marchionne's health was announced Saturday.

The 66-year-old executive had just one month ago presided over a critical meeting in Milan bringing together FCA officials, industry analysts, and journalists from all over the world. During the day-long session, Marchionne and several key lieutenants outlined their next five-year strategy, which primarily will rely on four of FCA's many brands: Detroit-based Jeep and Ram, and Italy's Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Then, Marchionne decided to take a health break, going in for surgery to repair a shoulder problem. He had expected to be off work for only about two weeks. Precisely what went wrong has not been released, though it was known that by the weekend he had suffered serious complications, plunged into a coma, and was being kept alive on a respirator at a Swiss hospital. He apparently had suffered a stroke following the surgery.

The loss of the founding FCA chief executive came nearly a year before he was scheduled to retire. But there was little surprise in the man chosen on Saturday to replace Marchionne. As one senior executive told NBC News, asking not to be formally identified, "It was Mike's job to lose." The British executive has taken an ever more public role at FCA in recent months, and was one of the key presenters at the announcement of the company's five-year plan in June.

Marchionne's legacy is a significant one, observers say, among the rare individuals who can claim to have rescued two car companies during his career. One of the other achievements the CEO was clearly proud of was having eliminated FCA's industrial debt — which he officially announced at the Milan summit.

But Marchionne didn't achieve everything he set out to do. Almost since bringing Fiat and Chrysler together he had openly declared his intention of finding another alliance, perhaps even a merger, partner for FCA. He had repeatedly been rejected by potential targets including General Motors and Volkswagen.

Manley has a number of other challenges on his desk, including the need to ramp up FCA's efforts in several key areas, including autonomous driving and vehicle electrification. Marchionne had long been skeptical about both technologies but had recently begun to push forward.

The other challenge for Manley will be crafting his own management team. He has already lost one key executive, Alfredo Altavilla, the head of FCA's European operations, and one of those in the hunt for the CEO spot, who resigned on Monday.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for Manley will simply be to generate the force field personality that Marchionne used to bring Fiat and Chrysler together and then turn FCA into a viable industry competitor.

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