By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I have been writing editorial commentaries about FCA’s Sergio Marchionne, the self-appointed auto CEO of the world, for years now. I even recall a previous column where I used the term “the full Sergio.” And every time I do, I get the usual array of hate emails suggesting that I am a “disgrace to my heritage,” “completely misguided and wrong,” “plainly mental” and “how do you sleep at night being the biggest asshole in the business?” etc., etc., etc.
And those are just a few highlights from the nicer ones.
Yes, I have relentlessly pounded Marchionne, but he has deserved every single word of my scathing assessments of who he really is and what his true mission in life – as he sees it - is. I have kept my foot down hard on Marchionne because frankly, most everyone else in the business – you lapdogs in the media know who you are - has given the guy a free pass from the moment he showed up here, gathering at his feet like children around a campfire for story time, letting him exhale his fantasy mind clouds containing his view of the world – both real and imagined - while dutifully reporting every word as if they had just witnessed the return from the mountaintop of the New Savior of the auto business, grasping carbon fiber tablets etched with his personal musings and meanderings designed to save us all.
And we had to suffer through the pontificating, the bombast, and the endless media descriptions of his dress and his personal proclivities, including the ugly sweaters and the smoking; the 30+ direct reports (because no one else was truly bright enough to grasp everything that he does), his espresso swilling minions and, of course, the unbridled arrogance that was never ending and all encompassing.
And Sergio’s Message? He is always right and everyone else is always wrong. So wrong, in fact, as to be laughable, especially here in the Motor City where he could hardly conceal his derision toward the “lesser lights” as he viewed them, toiling away at the other car companies.
And all the while I saw right through Marchionne - this deal-making stronzo who ultimately was only out for The Canonization of Sergio - who himself was a glorified bagman for the interests of what was left of the Fiat Empire, and who was smart enough to put his hand out at just the right moment so he could be gifted the remnants of Chrysler by the Obama administration, ending up paying $6 billion for the whole shebang when the Jeep brand and plant were worth that alone.
And then Marchionne was just smart enough to hop on the backs of the remaining True Believers out in Auburn Hills, taking credit for everything they did while riding the sales of Jeeps and Ram pickup trucks to record numbers, declaring himself to be the smartest guy in the room – any room – and crowing loudly to the media about that fact every chance he got even though FCA’s balance sheet was a complete mess and the whole enterprise was hanging by a thread.
Yes, we have endured it all. And make no mistake, after all of this I can tell you that Marchionne is indeed a master at two things: 1. Making deals advantageous for himself and for the interests he represents while using other people’s money, and 2. Making damn sure that the persona of “Sergio The Great” is cultivated, nurtured and enabled at every opportunity.
But nothing I have written or commented on could have predicted – or prepared anyone, for that matter - for the interview of Marchionne that showed up online in Automotive News Sunday afternoon. The interview, conducted by Larry P. Vellequette (with contributions by Luca Ciferri) revealed everything I have written about Marchionne – and then some – in a jaw-dropping display of hubris, arrogance and ego the likes of which this industry has never seen before, and that’s saying something given the parade of the egotistical maniacs who came before him.
The focus of the interview is Sergio’s mission to merge with someone - well, anyone at this point - but with the particular focus being on General Motors. For the record, as much as Marchionne says that he can survive just fine without a merger and that he will ride on his investment in Alfa Romeo to dizzying new heights (in case you forgot, Marchionne insists that he will sell 400,000 Alfas globally by 2018. FCA sold 68,000 last year), the fact remains that FCA is a glorified shell game, a car company sitting on $8 billion in debt, while every other auto manufacturer in the world has a net cash cushion. Sergio, of course, dismisses this as a mere bump in the road, but who’s kidding whom here? The industry “savior” is sitting on an enterprise that’s just one economic downturn away from being right back in the tank again.
But that has never stopped Sergio from couching FCA’s growing financial desperation in his “vision” for the industry, talking consolidation and parts sharing for the good of the industry when anyone with half a clue understands that Marchionne couldn’t care less about the greater good of the industry, especially if he can talk someone into saving FCA’s corporate ass.
Marchionne’s comments in the interview were as laughable as they were stunning. He told AN that he had gone over the numbers and that it all makes perfect sense, that the logic of a merger with GM is too brilliant to ignore, even if he says so himself. In true “I am the Greatest Of All Time” fashion, Marchionne even called out GM’s board of directors, suggesting they were dimwits not to entertain Sergio’s overtures, and that they had no real choice but to do it, if they knew what was good for them.
"It would be unconscionable not to force a partner," Marchionne said, to which, as Vellequette rightly suggested, sounded like a hostile overture. "Not hostile," insisted Marchionne. "There are varying degrees of hugs. I can hug you nicely, I can hug you tightly, I can hug you like a bear, I can really hug you. Everything starts with physical contact. Then it can degrade, but it starts with physical contact."
This is Marchionne’s agitated response to the fact that GM wants absolutely nothing to do with the Italian Carpetbagger and refuses to have any contact with him of any kind. And rightly so, because Sergio doesn’t do deals with hat in hand, he does deals to exploit perceived weaknesses that will enrich him personally and make his handlers from the Fiat family even wealthier.
And true to form, Marchionne says the logic of the deal is "irrefutable." "We're not talking about marginal improvement in margins," he said, "we're talking about cataclysmic changes in performance, just huge."
Lest you forgot, we’re talking about the smartest guy in any room here, what could go wrong, right? Marchionne continued: "I've gone through product by product, plant by plant, area by area, and I've analyzed them all." (Of course he has.) "I've obviously made some arbitrary assumptions (no, really?) about which architectures survive, which engines survive, and the only deal that offers them the same benefits as we potentially get... is us."
Wow. Is it any wonder why GM wants nothing to do with this guy?
"I've offered to sit down with them and take them through the numbers," Marchionne told AN, and I’m sure everyone down at the Silver Silos is just waiting with baited breath to have this happen. He said this, as AN described, while he was sipping an espresso and brandishing his tablet, as if the various charts and graphs he ginned up perfectly validated his case.
"They won't listen,” Marchionne said (recoiling in frustration, I imagine). “And that kind of abject refusal to engage... the capital markets won't understand why you are rejecting the discussion. You may reject the deal but you can't reject the discussion. If you're refusing to talk to me, and you have seen nothing, you either think you're above it all, or you think the capital markets are full of schmucks that owe you something."
There he goes again, framing the world in his own likeness, sucking all logic out of the room in one long drag on his cigarette. After all, if it sounds good to him, why wouldn’t GM just buy into his train of thought hook, line and sinker?
The sick undercurrent contained in all of this bluster? Marchionne is adamant that there are people just waiting to do a deal with him, that he is the belle of the ball and that GM is too stupid to see why he and FCA is their only choice.
"There have been responses of people who have shown interest in discussing," Sergio told AN. "Are they the people I wanted to get the response from? The answer is probably not. There are people who are interested in doing deals. I'm not interested in doing deals with them... because there's a better deal.”
What he really means to say is that yes, there are companies out there who want to do a deal – VW, for instance – but at his expense. And he’s never interested in a deal that he won’t come out on top of. Read between the lines and Marchionne is suggesting that GM is too stupid to do a deal, while GM is rightly saying, “Sorry, we’re not that stupid. Go away.”
But Sergio will not quit. "Look, the combined entity can make $30 billion a year in cash,” he said in the interview. “Thirty. Just think about that [expletive] number. In steady-state environments, it'll make me $28 to $30 billion," at a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 17 million.
Oops. Make me $28-$30 billion? You meant the new corporate entity, right, Sergio? Actually, no, that is exactly what he meant to say, in case there was any doubt. Despite his protestations otherwise, Sergio doesn’t want a merger with GM. Instead - and let’s make no mistake about this - he wants a hostile takeover so he can be officially crowned The King of the Automotive World. (GM reiterated to AN after the interview that the company and its shareholders are better off on their own.)
Marchionne being Marchionne - meaning he is inappropriate the moment he wakes up - also said, on the subject of never having met Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, "I'm not trying to date Mary, for the record, but I tried to get to see her."
Oh joy, Sergio, we’re all relieved. The Italian Stalker? At this point, words fail me except to say what a frickin’ idiot.
Then there’s Sergio’s reputation as a genius dealmaker, which I’ve gone on record as saying should be his one and only legacy in this business. "Look, I'm a tough negotiator and people know it, right? I am who I am, but so what?" he said. "Send somebody else in. Send the shark. I'd come off the table."
Barra, obviously annoyed with Marchionne, said in June that, "We have scale," and that GM is busy "merging with ourselves." Translation? Here’s an idea: Why don’t you cash out and just go away? The auto world would survive just nicely without you, Sergio.
But no, we’re talking Sergio here after all, remember?
"An attack on GM, properly structured, properly financed, it cannot be refused. You can play hardball to a point... It's too big to ignore, which is the issue that our board is facing."
Marchionne is so sure of his brilliance that he remains undaunted: "When you get to these type of analyses and this type of very thorough introspection about your business and the other guys'... you walk away with a conviction that barring implosions... driven by cultural differences that it's worth taking the risk. The benefits are so high that I don't think you can stop the machine.”
"This is not a question of telling me to screw off. I understand [GM's] desire to be alone and execute [its] plan. I've listened to the comments... 'we're still merging with ourselves,' which I do not buy for a company that is 107 years old. You can't merge with yourself."
Oh, but they can tell you to buzz-off, Sergio – and with jubilant glee, I might add - because as shocking as it may seem, you don’t know everything there is to know about this business. And lest we need to be reminded, The World According to Sergio is a very dark place indeed, one not everyone wants to be a part of. Just ask the True Believers out in Auburn Hills who toil away at figurative gunpoint, wishing Sergio and his espresso-fueled posse would just go back where they came from.
The grim reality behind all of Marchionne’s bluster? He doesn’t just reek of espresso and cigarettes, there's now a distinct whiff of terminal desperation surrounding him.
And there’s no amount of pontificating out loud to the press that is going to change that fact.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.