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Sergio Marchionne, Charismatic CEO Of Fiat Chrysler, Dies At 66

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Longtime Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has died following complications from cancer surgery. He was 66. It's a major blow for the company, which was planning to have Marchionne groom his successor. The CEO was a chain-smoking, racecar-driving intellectual known for straight talk and doing things his own way. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports on the man credited with saving Chrysler after its 2009 bankruptcy.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: In 2009, Chrysler was broke again and careening towards one of the deepest recessions in American history. Nobody wanted it - nobody, that is, except Sergio Marchionne, a corporate fixer who started out as an accountant, later turning around the struggling Italian automaker Fiat. Now he planned to do the same with Chrysler. KBB auto analyst Rebecca Lindland was at Marchionne's first press conference, where he outlined a five-year plan to bring Chrysler back to profitability. She says you could cut the skepticism in the room with a knife.

REBECCA LINDLAND: But he delivered. And that's something that you've got to give him credit for, is, man, this guy delivered on those plans that we were all highly skeptical of.

SAMILTON: Lindland says it might not have been possible for someone with less drive or willingness to make personal sacrifices like lack of sleep. He'd often email people in the middle of the night. He was hard on himself and on people who worked for him.

LINDLAND: I think he was a demanding boss. I don't know that he was unfair.

SAMILTON: Marchionne's subordinates in Italy often called him il Dottore, those in the U.S. the Boss with a capital B. He personally tweaked the famous 2011 Super Bowl commercial starring Eminem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMINEM: This is the Motor City. And this is what we do.

SAMILTON: Jim Blanchard is a former Michigan governor who was on Chrysler's board after it emerged from bankruptcy. He says Marchionne could go from quoting sales numbers one minute to Dante and John F. Kennedy the next.

JIM BLANCHARD: He was indeed a true renaissance man. He was a dynamo. He was interested in everything.

SAMILTON: He was an iconoclast. Covering him for years, I saw him wearing a tie exactly once. Otherwise, he wore the same outfit - a black or blue sweater and jeans. He said what he wanted, and he did what he wanted.

BLANCHARD: You know, there's no smoking in the Chrysler headquarters. But he smoked. So what are we going to do? So some of the board members were coughing and choking. So they put in this machine to try to take the smoke away from him.

SAMILTON: Marchionne prized loyalty, and he was loyal in return. Here he is tearing up while talking about the sacrifices that Chrysler factory workers made when they accepted deep cuts in pay and benefits to keep the company afloat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIO MARCHIONNE: You know, they've gone above and beyond the call of duty - not normal. Goes beyond the paycheck.

SAMILTON: Marchionne was sarcastic and funny and so smart. He inspired almost universal admiration and respect. Ray LaHood was U.S. transportation secretary when Marchionne took over Chrysler.

RAY LAHOOD: He made the most of an opportunity to transform an iconic car company. And that'll be his legacy.

SAMILTON: Marchionne leaves Fiat Chrysler in pretty good shape, especially its highly profitable Jeep brand. But this is the auto industry, after all, and there are headwinds coming. Marchionne would be the first to remind people that there's never any time to take it easy because there's always something that needs to be fixed. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "WAY OF THE SAMURAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.