The “Marchionne era” at Fiat has come to an abrupt end, in a dramatic, sooner-than-expected development.
The decision approved in Turin on Saturday in an emergency meeting of the joint boards of FCA, Ferrari and CNH overrides the expected timeline for the leadership change (which should have occurred in 2019, as Sergio Marchionne himself had announced, after the approval of the financial reports for 2018).
It is the result of an unforeseen development in terms of health. In such a case, the term “end of an era” inevitably takes on an even more final connotation—of a kind that brings with it the notion of a definitive rendering of accounts.
What did Marchionne mean for Fiat and Turin? What did he represent for Italy? And what about for each and every one of us, who have lived and suffered, to a lesser or greater extent, through so much in recent times in connection with the auto industry, manufacturing, and the economy generally?
Is he “the man who saved Fiat and brought it out into the world,” according to those who are singing his praises—or the one who caused its downfall by moving it to America?
Was he a manager who cleaned up the bureaucracy of the slow-moving, Ford-style industrial machine, introducing the informal style and the nimble pace of the post-modern leader—or did he rather stand for the heavy-handed, traditional authoritarianism on display in the referendums at Pomigliano and Mirafiori?
Was he the man of the future, no less than the embodiment of a ”new industrial and financial paradigm” in his vision and his actions, or was he “merely” a good navigator of the systematized chaos that characterizes our age, able to stay afloat thanks to his ability to constantly change shape?
It is difficult to offer any definitive answer now. But there is one point on which I believe I have a clear idea.
Marchionne was a “man of transition.” He was certainly not a man of the past, i.e. of an industrial past that has become clearly impossible to return to; but neither was he a man of the future.
While he managed to drag Fiat out of the 20th century (and from the bottom of a deep hole), he has not left it with a reliable and stable identity. He has not developed a new and sustainable “model” for it. He managed to balance its books, of course (and this itself was a near-miracle which allowed it to stand on its own two feet for the first time since 2006), but FCA remains a small group among the major global automobile manufacturers: it is eighth in the world, with 4,863,291 vehicles sold in 2017 (of which only one seventh were produced in Italy), commanding 5.1 percent of the market—exactly half of the market share of giants like Volkswagen and Toyota, and far behind the French Renault.
They are still quite unclear about what kind of cars they want to make: the only certainty is the success of the Jeep models (whose brand manager, Mike Manley, will be Marchionne’s successor), but otherwise they are wavering between focusing on premium and deluxe models or on traditional mass-market offerings.
In one of its most recent public statements, FCA announced a massive investment plan in electric vehicles (of 45 billion over four years)—a tough market sector, very crowded and with cutthroat competition, with some of the competitors, like Toyota, boasting twenty years of experience in the field. This move will definitely yield future gains, but so far everything remains very uncertain and in an embryonic stage.
A clearer and more straightforward question is that of Italy and of the company’s continuing operations in the country. Here, the “transition” has taken the form of a blunt exodus—with a transfer of resources and facilities that has dealt a huge blow to the industrial vocation of the country.
One might say that that exodus was the moment when industrial Italy, as we had known it in the second half of the twentieth century, officially ceased to exist—when the old Fiat not only changed their name, their official headquarters (to the Netherlands) and tax residency (to London), but also conducted a massive transfer of technology that contributed to the revitalizing of the American auto industry, which had been circling the drain, and which still remains in a near-fatal condition of continued weakness.
Once 2010 came, there was not even a trace left of “Project Italy,” which had been launched with great pomp just the previous year as a guarantee to extract massive concessions from the trade unions and the workers.
In a move also shepherded by Barack Obama, the company’s center of gravity was transferred from Turin and Campania to Michigan and Detroit.
The only things left in Italy were the hollowed-out husks at Mirafiori (now almost deserted, after the last operations of the Maserati line have been concentrated in Grugliasco) and Pomigliano (where the downward trajectory of the Panda model’s fortunes is leaving a trail of chronic and painful layoffs behind it).
Marchionne himself was the one who said, in October 2009 on Fabio Fazio’s show (as usual), that (in his words) “Fiat could do more if it could cut away from Italy.” Being a man of his word, he did precisely that in the years to follow.
In Italy, FCA has gone from 120,000 employees in 2000 to 29,000 employees today.
On Sunday, FCA’s direct employees in Italy number 29,000, including the Maserati and Ferrari divisions. In 2000, they numbered more than 120,000.
And now, Sergio Marchionne is quietly leaving the scene, just as the transition era—“his” time—is over.
The world that the company will have to face now is no longer that of easy-going globalization, with smooth communication and fruitful influences; nor is it merely a tougher version of that, with ferocious competition.
It is a time of walls and tariffs, of barriers and violent showdowns. A time of trade wars that threaten to take no prisoners. Perhaps we will remember fondly Marchionne’s omnipresent sweaters, in our time when helmets and camouflage uniforms are coming back in fashion.
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