July 25, 2018 / 12:07 PM / 3 months ago

Fiat Chrysler CEO's health crisis forced succession scramble

LONDON/DETROIT (Reuters) - Former Fiat Chrysler (FCHA.MI) Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne for more than a year assured investors that he and the automaker’s board were working on an orderly succession plan ahead of his expected departure in 2019.

FILE PHOTO: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne leaves at the end of a news conference in Balocco, northern Italy, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

But a health crisis that left 66-year-old Marchionne incapacitated in a Swiss hospital set off a transition last week that was sudden and rushed, banking and industry sources said. The company announced on Wednesday that Marchionne had died, succumbing to complications from surgery.

It emerged that Marchionne’s successor was far from settled. Indeed before last week’s crisis, many company executives remained in the dark, four banking sources who spoke to Fiat Chrysler executives told Reuters.

The scramble to replace Marchionne led to the resignation of a senior executive who was passed over for the top job, the sources said, and exposed fissures between the Italian and North American sides of the world’s seventh-largest automaker.

Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann named Michael Manley, head of the company’s Jeep and Ram truck divisions, to replace Marchionne at an emergency meeting in Turin, Italy on Saturday. In doing so, Elkann followed Marchionne’s wishes to appoint Manley his successor, two sources said.

The company has portrayed Manley’s appointment as the product of lengthy deliberation.

“Sergio and John have always been totally aligned on the choice of Mike Manley,” Fiat Chrysler’s main spokesman Mike Keegan said on Tuesday, when asked whether there were differences over the succession.

Elkann’s office declined to comment. Manley could not immediately be reached for comment.

This description diverges from what Marchionne himself told investors on June 1 during a day-long strategy presentation in Balocco, Italy.

Marchionne said that he and Elkann “from time to time have these chats” about succession, but the issue would not be decided until next year.

“It’s a 2019 issue,” Marchionne said. “So it’s not going to happen until we close ‘18. It just won’t happen.” He went on to say that the company’s board would not engage in a “rubber stamp process.”

Some analysts have also expressed skepticism that a final decision had been made.

“My view is Marchionne and Elkann were still arguing about succession and had different views on the right candidate,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Max Warburton said in a note on Monday, referring to the June 1 presentation.

Sources close to the company said they believed two other candidates - Fiat Chrysler chief financial officer Richard Palmer and Europe chief Alfredo Altavilla - had been in the running to replace Marchionne and that Elkann was also exploring an “Italian solution” by naming an Italian-born CEO.

Altavilla, 54, quit after being told of Manley’s appointment on July 21, one of the sources said.

A company veteran who joined Fiat in 1990, Altavilla took charge of the group’s struggling European operations in 2012 and returned them to profit three years later.

Altavilla pressed Elkann to give him the top job on July 20 when it became clear that Marchionne would not come back to work, three sources familiar with the situation said.

“For Altavilla it was too important - he wants to be CEO atleast once in his career,” one of the sources said.

Altavilla declined to comment.

MAJOR VOID

Marchionne underwent shoulder surgery in late June. The company said on July 21 that Manley would take over after Marchionne’s condition took a sudden turn for the worse. The company has not provided details on Marchionne’s illness.

Under the best of circumstances, Marchionne’s pending departure presented Fiat Chrysler with a major void to fill. Regarded as a savior of Fiat, Italy’s automotive champion, the Italian-born Marchionne set in motion the marriage between Fiat and bankrupt U.S. rival Chrysler just over a decade ago.

For the past several years, Marchionne had tried to engineer a merger or alliance between Fiat Chrysler and another automaker, driven by the view that car companies were developing too much duplicate technology in the chase for cleaner engines and electric cars. That ultimate deal eluded him.

Jetting between the company’s offices and design studios in Europe and the United States, Marchionne dominated Fiat Chrysler, eclipsing the executives under him.

A native of Italy who grew up in Canada, Marchionne acted as a bridge between the company’s Italian and American sides. He could parry questions from the Italian press in one press conference, and deliver sly put-downs of his rivals in English during the next.

Marchionne was a powerful advocate for the automaker’s Italian cars and brands, and said he would not restructure the company to leave a “stump” company in Italy that could not survive.

Fiat Chrysler reported second quarter financial results on Wednesday, and the scheduled call with analysts will be Manley’s first official step onto a public stage as CEO.

Manley runs the two brands, Jeep and Ram, that generate most of the group’s profit. Born in Britain and based at the former Chrysler headquarters in suburban Detroit, Manley is expected by bankers and analysts at least initially to follow a five-year plan laid out by Marchionne and other executives in June.

As Fiat Chrysler heads into what most industry executives and analysts predict will be a difficult 2019, the automaker’s Italian brands have lost a powerful champion with Marchionne’s departure.

Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak and Laurence Frost; Writing by Laurence Frost and Pamela Barbaglia; Editing by Marla Dickerson and Nick Tattersall

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