Sergio Marchionne's heart belonged to Canada, especially Windsor

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Grace Macaluso/Automotive News Canada


Sergio Marchionne, as usual, drew a packed house, this time at the University of Windsor, where the legendary CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles imparted career advice to a group of awestruck business students.

It was Nov. 17, 2016, and Marchionne was back home at his alma mater where he acquired a Masters of Business degree, but more importantly, experiences that would shape the formative years of young adulthood.

“If there’s a high point in my life, it’s the time I spent here, and I’m not trying to blow smoke up your nose,” said Marchionne, clad in his trademark black sweater. “I had a phenomenal experience at the school; I learned more about finance here than in the last 30 years.”

At the time of his speech, eight years after a brutal recession that plunged the southwestern Ontario city into double-digit unemployment, Windsor was enjoying a high point. A resurgent auto industry was firing up the local economy, with factories, including FCA’s minivan plant, running full-tilt.

Like Brampton, Oakville, Oshawa and other Ontario auto towns, Windsor’s economic revival is tied to the post-recession upswing in the North American auto industry. But the city’s economic heart is the minivan plant, which employs more than 6,000 workers. And Marchionne, who pumped more than $1 billion into upgrading the plant for production of the next-generation minivan, is credited as Windsor’s economic saviour.

FCA earmarked $325 million for a refurbished paint shop at its Brampton plant, which produces the Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Charger and Challenger – a commitment that stemmed from 2016 contract talks with Unifor, but helped secure a future for the more than 3,300 hourly employees.

Since Marchionne successfully orchestrated the merger between a bankrupt Chrysler Corp., and Italy’s Fiat SpA, he has expanded the automaker’s manufacturing footprint in Canada, with steady increases in both employment and production.

Though he was born in Italy, Marchionne, who immigrated to Toronto as a teenager, wore his Canadian citizenship proudly. And it flared up during 2016 contract talks, Unifor president Jerry Dias told BNNBloomberg News. “We were arguing about the Brampton assembly plant, and things got pretty heavy,” said Dias. “He took his passport out of his pocket, threw it at me, and said, ‘Look. What’s wrong with you? You think I’m going to mess with the Canadian operations?’”

Marchionne’s relationship with his adoptive country has had its rough patches, though. In 2014, he proposed a multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of FCA’s two assembly plants, but abruptly walked away after his request for government help ran into protracted negotiations with Ottawa, and became a political football in Ontario.

He proceeded with the $1 billion investment in Windsor, but left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Brampton.

By the time Windsor began pumping out new Chrysler Pacifica minivans, the situation eased, and Marchionne was back at the university that helped launch his business career.

His last piece of advice to the future captains of industry: “You need to stay incredibly humble throughout your entire life. Don’t be anything other than what you are. Keep a clean heart.”

On that November day two years ago, at the University of Windsor, Marchionne exposed his Canadian heart.

Canada owes you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Marchionne. And I’m not trying to blow smoke up your nose.