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Few brands are as iconic to Detroit as Chrysler. The automaker was among the earliest car companies and part of the three-legged stool on which the manufacturing might of the Motor City rested.

And a decade ago it nearly disappeared.

That the Chrysler name still lives today, with its factories and workers thriving, is a testament to the brilliance of Sergio Marchionne, who surely will stand among the legendary figures of an industry that has produced so many.

Marchionne died this week, shockingly. He was 66.

In 2009, the Big Three of America's auto industry was collapsing under the weight of the Great Recession. General Motors Corp. was headed to bankruptcy. Ford avoided that fate only by mortgaging everything it owned, including its Blue Oval logo. 

Chrysler had little hope of survival. The Obama administration, fearful that the company's demise would shock the automotive supplier network and deepen the economic crisis, poured billions of dollars into Chrysler, and yet liquidation seemed inevitable. 

That would have meant chopping up the automaker, selling off its profitable brands like Jeep and Ram, and killing the rest.

Enter Marchionne. He agreed to take an operating stake in Chrysler in exchange for modernizing the automaker.

It was a bold move. Marchionne was already immersed in trying to save Fiat, the family-owned Italian car maker that was not much better off than Chrysler.

Over the next decade, Marchionne led the combined companies under the FCA banner -- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles -- to stability and then profitability.

Today, FCA produces 14 models in 40 countries, employing 236,000 workers and generating annual revenues of $133 billion.

The heart of the operation is in Auburn Hills, where the Jeep and Chrysler brands are headquartered.  

Jeep has become the FCA profit engine. That, too, was by Marchionne's design. He invested heavily in the brand, bringing sales to 1.9 million a year from 730,000 just five years ago. 

Meanwhile, he killed off Chrysler's money-losing small car models, recognizing the rapid market shift to trucks and SUVs. 

Like the auto giants who went before him, Marchionne's personality was as large as his business skills.

Noted for his casual attire — he eschewed suits and wore only black sweaters —Marchionne basically lived on a jet for most of the past decade as he criss-crossed the Atlantic to keep FCA's many plates spinning. Twenty-hour work days were not uncommon.

He was courageous when courage was sorely needed in his industry. He wasn't afraid of taking risks. And he never stopped looking to the future.

When he died, Marchionne was preparing to take on the challenge of remaking another FCA brand, the Ferrari supercar.

He left-behind a 5-year plan that should help FCA continue its progress under new leadership.

Marchionne never lost his maverick instincts. While other automakers rushed to enter the autonomous vehicle race, he held FCA back, skeptical of the movement's future and deciding instead to invest in vehicles consumers want today.

In Detroit, where Chrysler was born and flourished for so many decades, Marchionne will be remembered as the man who saved thousands of local jobs and restored the automaker's status as a member in good standing of the Motor City's Big 3.

 

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