Sergio Marchionne's Millville Days

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Illustration of Sergio Marchionne by Jeff Schwachter Illustration of Sergio Marchionne by Jeff Schwachter
MILLVILLE, N.J. -

Following his death last week at the age of 66, Sergio Marchionne has been all over the news, remembered as a frank, sweater-wearing, chain-smoking business icon in cities across the world, from Zurich and Toronto to Detroit and Millville. 

Not long before the legendary CEO — who saved Fiat-Chrysler and brought the company to global success — would take the helm at one of the world’s largest automotive companies in 2004, he spent quite a bit of time in Cumberland County, heading up Wheaton Industries at 1101 Wheaton Avenue in Millville.

Hailed as a “turnaround artist” for transforming Fiat-Chrysler and making it into the robust company it is today — something many predicted couldn’t be achieved — while leaving his mark with the numerous people he worked with in different capacities over his long and varied career, Marchionne left many hearts broken with his passing. His sudden death led to a flurry of news articles and remembrances around the globe.

“He taught us that the only question that’s worth asking oneself at the end of every day is whether we have been able to change something for the better, whether we have been able to make a difference,” John Elkann, chairman of the Italian investment firm Exor, which holds the largest stake in Fiat-Chrysler, wrote in a statement issued prior to Marchionne’s death. “And Sergio has always made a difference, wherever his work took him and in the lives of so very many people.”

Morristown’s Stephen Drozdow is another person who remembers Marchionne well. Drozdow served as one of Marchionne’s managers while the latter operated Wheaton Industries during his stint with parent company Swiss company Aluisuisse-Lonza.

Drozdow offers a timeline for context.

“In early 1996 the Wheaton family was in serious financial stress and the fact is … they were nearly bankrupt.

“So in Spring of 1996, they began the process of selling the company and began holding meetings with potential acquirers.

“I joined the company in February of 1996 not knowing this so I wasn't told this; I found out after about four or five weeks on the job. But I was one of the people that was making the management presentations, through potential acquirers, and a company called Aluisuisse-Lonza was one of the interested parties and Sergio at the time was the CFO Aluisuisse-Lonza.

“Subsequently, in June of 1996, Aluisuisse was the winning bidder and acquired the company, and Sergio, it was his idea to acquire Wheaton.

“So, you know, he kind of masterminded the acquisition and they sent him over to run it. So from June of ’96 on, Sergio was running the original Wheaton companies.”

Because Drozdow was from North Jersey, he stayed in one of the apartments in the Wheaton building. Although Marchionne traveled extensively — he was still the CFO of Aluisuisse while running Wheaton Industries and had a full staff back in Switzerland— he often stayed in the apartment next door to Drozdow. Most of the time it would just be the two of them staying overnight on the premises in Millville.

“They were small one-bedroom apartments,” says Drozdow. “He was in Room 2 and I was in Room 4; the other apartments were unoccupied. So in the morning we'd have breakfast together and we would talk and do other things.

“I mean essentially we would just sit around, and, believe it or not we’d take turns making breakfast, and then we’d talk about Wheaton [Industries] and what we were finding because I was new to the company and he was new to the company. We were both very interested in culture — culture as it pertained to the leadership of a business, as well as the commitment that employees would make to the business based on the type of culture that existed. So we had a lot of conversations about that.”

Drozdow says Marchionne mostly spoke about items pertaining to business during those breakfasts, but in a more relaxed manner. In meetings, Marchionne was a different person, as Drozdow recalls.

“We spoke about a little bit of stuff on the side during those breakfasts, but it was mostly business. But it was a different tone,” recalls Drozdow. “It was more conversational. But when you got into the meetings with the management, it was very challenging. I mean, I always said: he had an undergraduate degree in psychology, he had a master's degree in business, he was a certified public accountant and a lawyer. So I always use the anecdote that, you know, when you got up to make a presentation in front of him, first he psychoanalyzed you, then he looked at what you were presenting — particularly financial, but very, very strategically … and then he would grill you like a prosecution attorney. There were no easy meetings with Sergio.”

He also had a photographic memory to boot.

“I was in a meeting with him one time that we were talking about budgets and he said, ‘in your last review,’ which was six months before — you know, everybody used spreadsheets. He said ‘you had a different number’ for whatever it was this particular spreadsheet was about and the presenter had no idea. He stopped the meeting and pulled out the six-months-prior spreadsheet and sure enough the number was different.”

Drozdow adds that Marchionne had a huge capacity to manage a large number of people and keep track of everything and always know what was going on.

“He was quite a person in that he challenged you, he rewarded you, he let the chaff fall by the wayside. He got to the kernels of the best people or the best business, best outcomes, and that’s what motivated him was the accomplishment of that which others might think was un-accomplishable.”

Drozdow remembers the much-written about chain-smoking (“he had an office and off to the side he had a conference room where he could smoke,” says Drozdow); the sweaters (“even back then he never wore suits; he was wearing sweaters”); and how hard Marchionne could be on underperforming employees (“you never wanted to be on the defensive with Sergio. You always came into a meeting preparing, you never wanted to be on the defense because, I mean, for all of its attributes, he could be brutal — viciously brutal if he thought you weren't doing your job”).

He also points out that Marchionne’s time at Wheaton prepared him to take over Fiat-Chrysler and served as a major stepping stone for that massive transformative endeavor.

“It was his first true operational experience where he was accountable for the outcome,” says Drozdow. “Don’t forget that when he came to Wheaton he'd been a financial guy, so when they put him in charge of Wheaton, running it, that was his first real operational responsibility. So he took to it, he met with the unions, he would have meetings with the rank and file, whether they're unionized or non-unionized. He listened to everybody, but he had no time for nonsense.”

By 2004 Marchionne would begin his unprecedented journey with Fiat-Chrysler, having left Millville — and his stepping stone to enormous success — behind.

“I think that he was the kind of person who was memorable, even when you first met him,” says Drozdow. “Some people have a certain presence. It's hard to describe what that presence is, but it stemmed from a respect of his hard work. He was a workaholic, he always had an immediate grasp over a situation, and yet he was easy to connect with. In all of his intensity you felt his humanity as well, and all of those attributes made him [who he was].

“It has to do with some sort of an innate chemistry that certain people possess that cause you to immediately respect them and like them,” adds Drozdow. “But even if you don't like them, you respect them.”

 

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