The first time it happened, I was hovering curbside—illegally—in the LAX arrivals area waiting for my betrothed to land. A backpacker sidled up alongside my passenger side on the diagonal. Our eyes met and she looked away—to the front of the car as she walked around it. I could see her brow furrow at the four-leaf clover on the fender and again when she saw the nose. Curiosity apparently satisfied, she wandered away.
It happened again minutes later, after I finished loading up the luggage. As the tailgate came down, I caught a guy on the curb staring before mouthing “Stelvio?” Yeah buddy, Quadrifoglio, in Misano blue with black 20-inch wheels.
On the way home, we stopped at Trader Joe’s. As we loaded up our groceries, a gentleman came around to say, “I just have to tell you, you have the most gorgeous car—really gorgeous,” before getting into his Infiniti FX45.
At my local surf spot the next morning, a father and son were loading boards into a rusty red FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser parked next to the Stelvio. When I keyed the remote, the father looked up and asked what I thought about the Alfa. I told him what I tell you now: I’ve never had so many people show so much interest in an SUV.
As you can divine from Detroit editor Alisa Priddle’s touching tribute to Sergio Marchionne, it’s hard to imagine how Alfa Romeo could have come back to America, or how this Quadrifoglio would have been built, without Marchionne’s leadership. No Sergio, no Stelvio.
I first met Marchionne in December 2012 when I had the honor of presenting the Ram truck team Motor Trend’s 2013 Truck of the Year award. For the occasion, Marchionne called an all-hands meeting at FCA’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. I found out later this was only the second all-employee meeting since his arrival in June of 2009 after Chrysler’s tumultuous bankruptcy. It was also the largest public speaking engagement of my life to that point, and I was nervous as hell. I learned that day that my fears were misplaced; I was there to present the best kind of news, and nobody cared if my jokes were bad or if my fly was down.
Much harder was what Marchionne and his lieutenants had to do to get FCA to that moment in time. It takes a special kind of leader to steer a company out of Chapter 11, fuse its culture with that of another multinational operation, all while keeping the rank and file motivated and charging in the right direction.
Marchionne wasn’t an easy guy to work for; stories of his temper, stratospheric expectations, and all-night, trans-Atlantic poker games are legend. But he could also be disarmingly candid and personable. I remember watching him work the last handful of journalists long after his Detroit auto show press conference had ended. These were local writers, mostly from small papers and outlets in FCA factory towns, yet he called out each journalist by name and pulled production numbers and financials without consulting notes. When he needed to disagree, during a press conference or earnings call, he did so without being disrespectful—or taking it to Twitter. I can think of industry execs and heads of state who could learn a lot from Marchionne’s style.
You may not agree with what has happened to all of the FCA brands under Marchionne’s leadership, but you cannot dispute that he brought Chrysler and Dodge back from the brink and helped Ram and Jeep flourish by challenging his most talented department heads to do their utmost. Thanks to acolytes Tim Kuniskis, Ralph Gilles, Reid Bigland, Steve Beahm, and Sergio’s successor Mike Manley, we are flush with Cherokees, Hellcats, Redeyes, Power Wagons, and Giulias—and have driverless Pacificas, hybrid Rams, and Jeep pickup trucks to look forward to. And don’t forget all the attention you’ll get if you spring for a Stelvio. Thank you, Sergio.
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