The day I met Sergio Marchionne, by Georg Kacher

Published: 15 August 2012

Georg Kacher recently interviewed Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne for a feature in CAR Magazine. You can read the full interview, and our scoop on the new Alfa Romeo Giulia and five other new Alfas, in the August 2012 issue of CAR. Here is the background to the interview - an intriguing window into the life of one of the world's best-known CEOs.

Fiat's corporate headquarters across the road from the historic Lingotto factory with its famous rooftop test loop is a meticulously restored fortress with endless corridors, tall ceilings and numerous security checkpoints. Sergio Marchionne's dimly lit office sits halfway up the massive building block in a street-facing corner. It appears to be smaller than the bright adjoining room where three secretaries reign supreme over a huge desk laden with monitors, keyboards and paperwork.

I could have sworn I heard Maria Callas sing full volume through a structure of pre-WW2 walls on the approach to his master's inner sanctum, but suddenly another door opened and lanky John Elkann stepped out, followed by the stooped figure of Sergio Marchionne, fuming fag in hand. Talk about extreme contrasts, clash of cultures, chief and superchief. Wiry with wide-awake eyes and a broad smile, the young Fiat heir is dressed immaculately in a mid-blue suit, a light-blue shirt and a brightly striped tie. Slightly pudgy, chortling with laughter in response to a joke told in Italian with only a faint Canadian twang and displaying a greyish 30-day beard, SM is, true to his carefully cultivated underdog image, a professed supporter of the Italian knitwear industry, and a dedicated ambassador for sweet smelling Muratti Privat filter cigarettes.

CAR interviews Sergio Marchionne

There is no ice breaking required. Marchionne sits down, leans back, extinguishes the cigarette, fingers for the packet in a reflex motion, then reaches instead for his Blackberry to check mail. I have 30 seconds to scan the room. The furniture is as old-fashioned as the building, the tall wooden desk is dotted with gadgets and memorabilia, there is a monumental high-end sound system tucked away next to one of only two windows, the walls display a seemingly random mix of framed letters, photographs and paintings.

The CEO of Fiat Spa and Chrysler LLC answers all my questions, but despite the friendly and relaxed atmosphere is it hard to see through the industry's most controversial mover and shaker. Hearsay is my only source of information when it comes to personal things such as likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, the private life of a public person.

Apparently, SM still drives frequently to Switzerland where his estranged wife and his sons live, and where he entertains a second or third home. During the week, he sleeps in an apartment in downtown Turin, but apparently Mr Fixit spends most of his time up in the air, travelling to or from Detroit where he has just purchased a nice riverfront property with a ten-car garage.

Chauffeurs and supercars: the Marchionne garage

Although there is always a black Lancia Thema with chauffeur on standby, Sergio Marchionne - a lawyer by trade - is a keen driver. The other day, he took his Enzo to the Balocco test track where some frantic ad hoc rescheduling was required to make room for the boss and his toy.

The morning after our interview, he arrived in a burgundy Ferrari 599 SA Aperta on Swiss plates. There are more Ferraris hiding where SM keeps his other cars, allegedly an intriguing mix of European thoroughbreds and American muscle. Does that make Mr Marchionne a hardcore car guy? Or is he perhaps only an armchair engineer, a finance expert and not at all a visionary like Ferdinand Piech?

The conclusion

No, 90 minutes are definitely not enough to get to know a person, to find out what makes him tick, to read between the lines, to see through the jokes and to decipher the casual cross references.

One last question, please, signore Marchionne. You obviously enjoy predicting volumes, results, shares, numbers. Not too long ago, you said that a global car maker needs between 5.5 and 6m units a year to survive. Where is Chrysler-Fiat on this survival scale?

'Lets add it up,' is the answer, and SM needs no pen or paper to do so. 'My projection for 2012 is 4.1m units. By 2014, we┬┤ll be at 5.5, perhaps 5.6m units. To this grand total, I expect NAFTA to contribute 2.8m, Europe to hold at 1.3m, Latin America to grow to 1.1m, and China/India to add maybe 400,000 units.'

Grinning broadly, the boss concludes: 'That makes 5.6m vehicles, spot-on target.' There is no doubt about it: the man is a quick thinker and a highly opinionated top manager. And he is funny, entertaining, broad-minded and not only interested in things with wheels attached. If Ferdinand Piech is the auto industry's R&D wizard, then Sergio Marchionne is the merger and acquisition magician. What unites the two men is a deep understanding of the business they are shaping, an uncanny ability to build empires, and a thinly veiled lust for entrepreneurial success.

>> Don't miss the full interview in the August 2012 issue of CAR Magazine. Click here for a free digital preview

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel