FCA says it was unaware of Marchionne’s serious illness

Detroit News staff and wire
STERLING HEIGHTS, MI - AUGUST 26: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne takes part in an event celebrating the start of production of three all-new stamping presses at the FCA Sterling Stamping Plant August 26, 2016 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The presses, whose installation began in July 2015 and cost $166 million, will increase the stamping capacity at the plant.

Sergio Marchionne was seriously ill for more than a year before he died Wednesday, according to the Swiss hospital that treated him.

His condition had not been revealed to shareholders of the companies he ran, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ferrari SpA. And Fiat Chrysler said Thursday that the company was unaware of serious health problems until last Friday.

“Although all the options offered by cutting-edge medicine were utilized, Mr. Marchionne unfortunately passed away,” University Hospital Zurich said in a statement on Thursday. The hospital said it disclosed the treatment to dispel rumors in the media.

Marchionne, 66, had been replaced as chief executive officer of the two automakers and as chairman of CNH Industrial NV on Saturday. Exor NV, the Agnelli family holding company that controls the three companies, confirmed on Wednesday that he died, offering no further elaboration.

Fiat Chrysler said in a statement Thursday that due to medical privacy, it had no knowledge of facts relating to Marchionne’s health. It said the automaker was not in a position to comment on statements made by the hospital.

“The company was made aware that Mr. Marchionne had undergone shoulder surgery and released a statement about this,” the company said. “On Friday, July 20, the company was made aware with no detail by Mr. Marchionne’s family of the serious deterioration in Mr. Marchionne's condition and that as a result he would be unable to return to work. The company promptly took and announced the appropriate action the following day.”

On Saturday, the board of directors met in an emergency meeting in Italy, as the company disclosed that Marchionne's health had taken a serious turn due to complications after surgery. Marchionne was replaced by Mike Manley, who assumed the helm of FCA on Saturday after eight years heading the company’s Jeep brand and nearly three leading Ram.

Marchionne’s last public appearance was June 26, when he spoke at an event in Rome. The company said on July 5 that the CEO had undergone an operation on his right shoulder and was expected to require “a short period of convalescence.”

Citing anonymous sources, Italian business website Lettera43 reported Tuesday that Marchionne had been diagnosed long ago with invasive shoulder sarcoma, a type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, that develops in the bones and connective tissues. During surgery on his shoulder, according to the report, the former CEO had a stroke and was in a coma with irreversible brain damage.

According to Lettera43, Marchionne had expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the high-risk operation. Sources told the business website that the former CEO had a cerebral embolism, which the American Heart Association defines as a stroke that occurs when an artery is blocked.

For some time, according to the report, Marchionne had taken cortisone to soothe severe shoulder pain that made it difficult for him to move his arms.

A seriously ill CEO presents corporate boards with a range of complex questions about what to tell the public and when, said Doug Chia, the executive director of the Governance Center at the Conference Board, a U.S. business think tank.

“Frankly it’s a tricky situation, because there are medical privacy issues here and it’s a very personal thing,” he said. While investors are right to expect to be informed when a leader’s future is at risk, “it’s just very difficult to judge when does that point come,” he said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Keith Laing and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.