No. 959
August 15, 2018
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Monday
Jul232018

AN UNFORTUNATE DENOUEMENT.

Editor-in-Chief's Note (6:00 a.m. 7/25): I wrote this column early Monday morning, when the extent of Sergio Marchionne's condition was not known, except that it was very serious. And when more detailed reports emerged, it was clear that the situation with Sergio was dire. The very sad news today is that Sergio Marchionne has passed away at the age of 66. As I said in my column, the likelihood that we will see another CEO like him is slim and none. He was the most colorful, shoot-from-the-lip leader this industry has seen in a long time. And even though I was his most consistent critic by far, I appreciated his passion, vision and enduring optimism. CEOs who tell it like it is, or how they think it is, are a lost and unique art. And there’s no question that Sergio Marchionne was artfully unique. Our deepest sympathies go out to Sergio's family and friends, and the people of FCA. -PMD

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. When you wander around this planet long enough you experience how serious illness can devastate people’s lives and tear families apart. And with the news of Sergio Marchionne’s serious illness I would like to say right up front that I wish no ill health on anyone, and I wish the best for Sergio and his family, although the reports certainly are not good. 

This is not the way Sergio deserved to leave his career – something he lived for 24 hours a day – and I really feel bad for him. To say Marchionne left his mark on this business is an understatement; because warts and all he was one of the most compelling leaders this business has ever seen.

Now, lest you think I am going to walk back countless negative columns about Sergio’s tenure at Chrysler (now FCA), you’re sadly mistaken, even though last week was clearly National Walk Back Week (didn’t you get the memo out there? -WG). Since the news of Sergio’s illness hit the media sphere, the countless words of praise about him piled up like cord wood, especially with local automotive scribes who were so gushing and effusive in their unbridled praise that I’m sure the push to canonization is well under way and that “Saint Sergio” is not far behind. 

But I realized long ago that expecting cogent analysis from some of those card-carrying bootlickers in the automotive media is a fool’s errand. Rational thought and balanced perspective always give way to making sure that their asses are covered and their bread is buttered; after all, they don’t call ‘em “the go-along-to-get-along” posse for nothing. Enough about that; wasting words on some of the unfortunates in the automotive media is not a value-added activity.

As I’ve said repeatedly, in case you have forgotten, Sergio Marchionne is clearly a brilliant guy, but the fact that he reminded everyone within his company and outside of it that he was the smartest guy in the room – any room – was not one of his endearing qualities in a long list of less than enduring qualities. (He was certainly eminently qualified to be CEO, unlike Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson, the legendary “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO/stumblebum who almost ran GM into the ground.)

Marchionne’s specialty was always deal making, especially with other people’s – and governments’ – money. The fact that he shrewdly surmised that the United States government was up against it with Chrysler’s bankruptcy, and that if he played his cards right he could be “gifted” Chrysler’s assets for a song, is indisputable. Sergio not only acquired Chrysler “all-in” for around $6 billion, Fiat didn’t have to make substantial payments on the deal until eighteen months after it was consummated. That’s “genius” stuff, and Marchionne certainly deserved that moniker.

But once Marchionne got a hold of Chrysler, he and his espresso-swilling minions (you didn’t think Peter would leave that one out, did you? -WG) descended on Chrysler in a blur of “we’re going to show you how it’s done.” Except that the reality was that how Fiat actually got things done back home was so antiquated and out of touch with the ways of modern automobile industry methods that Chrysler operatives were shocked and really had no idea how they were going to move the company forward with the over-caffeinated Italians getting in the way.

This was, of course, after Sergio staged a seven-hour death march of a media show/lecture that was a preview of the runaway hubris and self-aggrandizement that would mark his tenure at FCA from the get-go. In fact, that part of Sergio’s character only got worse as the years went by, especially when he realized that certain bootlicking members of the automotive media would carry his personal PR water for him, no matter what he said and how bombastic he got.

There were the blatant insults to every other auto company executive out there, marked by Sergio reminding everyone that he’d forgotten more than they would ever know; there was the hamfisted overtures to GM CEO Mary Barra that were blatantly insulting and woefully misguided; and there was the constant whining and bleating that the rest of the industry was just ill-equipped to deal with the realities of this business. He was, of course, but everyone else wasn’t. No, Sergio didn’t endear himself to anyone, and when he went around looking for partners to save his enterprise, his hubris wouldn’t allow him to believe that no one wanted to do business with him on his terms. He was genuinely mystified that they could be that shortsighted.

Was Chrysler better off with Sergio than without? No question. But Sergio pointedly swept the True Believers in Auburn Hills under the rug, taking credit for their hard work and creativity at every turn. In fact, it is the True Believers at Chrysler who actually saved the company. Their product ingenuity and savvy propelled the company forward, while Sergio and his posse pissed off suppliers with their calculated demands for lowball bids, and then once they got them insisting that the suppliers “do it for half of that.” 

Make no mistake, Marchionne & Co. did not endear themselves to anyone in the trenches with the real nitty-gritty dealings of this business. Again, if it weren’t for the True Believers out in Auburn Hills, none of this latest Chrysler “miracle” wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, something that some of the homers in the automotive media don’t even bother mentioning.

I was also interested to read the glowing comments from certain dealers over the weekend, who insisted that without Sergio they’d be out of business. That may be true, but what about the dealers who bought into Sergio’s promises of world domination, but first they had to spend money on new brick and mortar for Fiat stores? And if they did that, they would be first in line to get a glittering array of Alfa Romeo products, the brand that would be “the next Audi.” I noticed that none of those dealers were asked for quotes, because there were countless numbers of them that lost their shirts because of Sergio’s calculated carnival barking. 

And what about the constant shenanigans that FCA pulled with their sales reporting? Marchionne was so hell-bent on showing an uninterrupted monthly sales increase that the company misreported sales figures for six years, all the way back to 2011. It was another reminder of Marchionne’s almost unlimited hubris, that if he said it enough and pounded the table enough, the automotive media would believe it and dutifully spread the word accordingly. And he was right, until FCA got caught, and then Marchionne was strangely silent. 

I have just barely touched upon all of Marchionne’s misdeeds at the helm of Chrysler. He was an absolute tyrant behind the scenes and easily in the Hall of Fame for Horrible Bosses. His egomaniacal insistence that only he knew what was best and only he knew what needed to be done lead to a withering 30+ direct reports, taking micromanaging to unheard of heights.

Oh well, enough. I only wish the serial offenders in the automotive media would have deigned to expose “the other Sergio” because there are at least two of him. And the less appealing one is petty, belligerent, egomaniacal and forever ungrateful.

As for Mike Manley, he was the logical successor to succeed Sergio. He was responsible for the upward trajectory of Jeep, and he knows the company inside and out. I will have more to say about Manley in future columns.

But today is about Sergio Marchionne. The likelihood that we will see another CEO like him is slim and none. Overlooking his Dark Side for a moment, he was the most colorful, shoot-from-the-lip leader this industry has seen in a long time. And even though I was his most consistent critic by far, I appreciated his passion, vision and enduring optimism. CEOs who tell it like it is, or how they think it is, are a lost and unique art. And there’s no question that Sergio Marchionne was artfully unique.

I wish Sergio and his family all the best in this most difficult time.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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