Sergio Marchionne, An Appreciation of a Leader

I have always had an odd fascination with Chrysler. The whole story is too long to get into, but it relates to my Mother first seeing value in Chrysler stock and timing the ups and downs like Paganini on a violin, and my days at Chrysler’s Highland Parks Tech Center working with Chrysler engineers on secret America’s Cup projects in the days of minivans and K Cars.

I knew how Chrysler engineers worked and when the merger with Daimler took place I had an UhOh moment. There are great Chrysler engineers, and there are great Mercedes engineers, but that does not mean they think the same way. At Martin & Ottaway we are very sensitive to the differences in world wide engineering cultures and Germans and Americans jointly producing cars? I think not. I ran this by my German Detroit car engineer brother in law and he felt the same way.

So it did not work out. And then Sergio Marchionne walked in with Fiat and walked out with both. American and Italian engineers are a much better match and I was encouraged.

And then I heard an interesting story.

Mr. Marchionne was looking at the Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep line-up during the take-over and noticed the very recently introduced Dodge Journey. Its introduction had barely been noticed and the reviews had been lukewarm at best. He looked at it again and noticed its dullness. He made a proposal to the Chrysler engineers: If he provided $200 per car, could they give it a nice interior and maybe spiff up the exterior. $200 per car for such an upgrade is quite generous and the engineers (and designers) were delighted and did a visual redesign. If one were to think of this proposal a little more deeply it becomes apparent how clever it was. A great test and challenge of his personnel, low cost, great potential pay off, and minimal downside. Lemonade from lemons.

It was only a minor upgrade but it certainly convinced me, and we still have our much beloved, bullet proof and super versatile Dodge Journey.

And we were not the only ones. This car has a strange sales history, not a huge seller, but increasing every year until 2017, and that type of steadiness means money in the bank.

I thoroughly enjoyed following Mr. Marchionne’s leadership of Chrysler. He led a car company the way a car company should be led. He made mistakes (from my point of view using the Alfa Romeo Guilietta as the basis for the Dodge Dart was a boner; why not just import the baby Alfa, hatchback and all), but he owed up to them so well and was never stubborn about a mistake. Instead he just tried the next thing and managed to drag everybody along. It was great to learn from a master, and I was much saddened by his sudden death.

I wanted to write something about him and I searched for the Dodge Journey upgrade story, but could not find it. Instead I came across this article. It was written in February when he had announced his upcoming retirement, but before any hint of illness. That made it an honest assessment without sentimentality and is a great read about leadership. To shine that brightly in a reporter’s eyes, warts and all, is rare indeed, and a eulogy after his passing, by comparison, would simply sound insincere.

We should never forget true leaders like Sergio Marchionne, he was one of those rare leaders who can look at problems from all angles. From a life long Chrysler Owner (A Plymouth Volare wagon, seven minivans, a few K cars, including turbos, a deeply desirous 2011 Alfa Guilletta owner, and, today, a 75th anniversary Jeep Renegade, a 1995 Jeep Wrangler, and the Dodge Journey): Thank you Sergio for keeping the dream alive.