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Fiat Chrysler is shaken without visionary CEO behind wheel

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, left, has been

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, left, has been replaced by Jeep executive Mike Manley, both seen here on May 21, 2010.  Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

Fiat Chrysler shares dipped Monday as investors expressed worry about the exit of ailing CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose driven and creative management style has been the company's fortune.

Shares in the Italian-American carmaker fell 1.9 percent Monday afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange in the first trading since Marchionne's grave health condition was disclosed over the weekend.

Trading was volatile, particularly after news that the head of the big European operations, who had been considered one of Marchionne's potential successors, was quitting. 

The Fiat Chrysler board on Saturday named long-time Jeep executive Mike Manley as CEO, unexpectedly accelerating a transition that was planned for early next year. The company said the 66-year-old Marchionne suffered complications from shoulder surgery in Zurich, Switzerland, last month that worsened in recent days, and that he could not resume his duties. No other details were released.

Marchionne will be a hard act to follow. Analysts credit his industry vision and ability to strike deals and take risks for increasing the market value of Fiat by tenfold since he took over in 2004. And while he was due to retire in 2019, most expected him to stay on in some role to guide the company.

"Marchionne ran FCA in a command and control style, with constant firefighting measures. There is no operating manual to follow," said Max Warburton, an analyst at market research firm Bernstein who often publicly tussled with Marchionne on conference calls about the company's earnings.

Marchionne engineered both the turnarounds of Italian carmaker Fiat and Chrysler, which Fiat acquired in 2009 in a deal with the U.S. government, creating the world's seventh-largest carmaker out of two formerly dysfunctional entities. He created shareholder value for the Fiat-founding Agnelli family with successful spinoffs of Fiat's heavy vehicle maker CNH Industrial and of the iconic Ferrari super sports car company.

Marchionne proved himself a consummate deal-maker. He won control of Chrysler in a 2009 deal with U.S. President Barack Obama's government without putting a penny down, only in exchange for bringing more small-car technology to Chrysler.

The Italian Canadian manager later demonstrated his agility by refocusing U.S. production on trucks and SUVS and away from passenger cars to meet market demand, a process that got underway in 2016.

And when President Trump took office, Marchionne quickly responded to his calls to keep jobs in America by repatriating production at a Mexican plant.

Manley, 54, has been key to transforming the quintessentially American Jeep brand into a global marquee since taking over there in 2009, and he also has been the head of the Ram truck division since 2015. Both brands have formed the leading edge of Fiat Chrysler's North American strategy to move away from passenger car production and focus on SUVs and trucks to meet market demand.

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