Commentary

Is Sergio Marchionne the next Lee Iacocca?

Some Chrysler-brand dealers think so. Or hope so. They recall how Iacocca saved Chrysler after one of its previous near-death experiences some 30 years ago.

Dealers are looking to Fiat’s Marchionne, Chrysler CEO since last summer, to rescue the auto maker, again, as it struggles to swim to the shore of stability.

“He is a rough cut of Lee Iacocca, and I remember the dark days of Chrysler back then and what Iacocca did for the company,” Chrysler dealer Chuck Eddy of Youngstown, OH, tells me.

The two Chrysler chiefs, past and present, share some similarities, but otherwise are decidedly different.

Marchionne is Italian; Iacocca the son of Italian immigrants. His first name, Lido, reportedly comes from the district of Venice where he was conceived during his parents’ honeymoon there.

Both men love Italian super-sports cars. Marchionne goes for Ferarris. (He oversees that brand, too, as head of parent company Fiat.) Iacocca adores Lamborghinis. Chrysler, under him, owned Lamborghini.

Now for the dissimilarities.

Marchionne is unassuming and low-keyed, although he is known to speak his mind when necessary. He wears pullover sweaters to work. He has set up shop in a modest office at Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills.

Iacocca was outspoken and charismatic as Chrysler’s top dog. He filled the room with his presence. He wore expensive suits and worked from an expansive office on the top floor of the Chrysler complex, built during his reign.

Plans were to eventually name the place after him. But he became persona non grata at Chrysler when, three years after retiring from there, he joined financier Kirk Kerkorian in a 1995 hostile acquisition bid for the auto maker.

The attempt failed. Four years later, Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz. That ended badly. One wonders what Chrysler might have become if Iacocca and Kerkorian had gotten hold of it.

Marchionne rarely is spotted in the Chrysler building’s common areas. In contrast, Iacocca would roam the corridors, shaking hands and chatting with workers who eagerly approached the boss.

He endeared himself to dealers, too, often mingling with them, swapping stories and emphasizing the importance of their role. That’s one reason so many dealers still speak glowingly of him.

Marchionne doesn’t mix it up with dealers much. Maryland megadealer Tammy Darvish of the 26-store DarCars Automotive Group praises his executive talents, but says he needs to meet more dealers.

The head of an auto maker should establish a relationship with its dealer body, she says. “I have a relationship with a customer getting a $19.95 oil change.”

Marchionne doesn’t talk to the press much. Iacocca liked the give and take with journalists. I interviewed him in 1999 in San Francisco, when, post-Chrysler, he was pitching his latest product: electric bicycles.

It was around the time Chrysler and Daimler announced their merger plans.

On the way to the hotel presidential suite where Iacocca was holding court, a public-relations rep asked me to stick to the subject of e-bikes. He said other journalists had ignored that topic in favor of asking Iacocca for his reaction to the big automotive merger that was in the news.

I told the PR guy it was unfair to bridle me for someone else’s sins. OK, he said, ask some auto questions. But not too many. And at the end of the interview.

Turns out, Iacocca, while not remiss in pitching his bike venture, on his own steered the conversation to the auto industry in general and DaimlerChrysler in particular. Why not? He spent 50 years in that field. You could tell he missed it.

So, Iacocca and Marchionne have different demeanors, different management styles, different taste in clothing and different relationships with dealers.

None of those contrasts will matter if Marchionne manages to resuscitate Chrysler, as Iacocca did three decades ago. Striking similarities don’t get better than that.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com