WASHINGTON — Sergio Marchionne, a master negotiator who engineered one of the most brazen automotive deals in history when he persuaded the US government to sell foundering automaker Chrysler to Italy’s Fiat and turned Fiat Chrysler into one of the most profitable firms in the industry in less than a decade, died Wednesday at a hospital in Zurich. He was 66.
The news agency ANSA reported that the cause of death was cardiac arrest, following shoulder surgery.
Mr. Marchionne had already planned to retire next year and turn the reins over to successor Mike Manley, who headed the company’s Jeep and Ram brands.
Yet, there appeared to be a sense of panic about what comes next for the company Mr. Marchionne had expanded with astonishing success, much of it credited to his charismatic and frank personality, his negotiating prowess, and his indefatigable work ethic.
He also represented a fundamental shift for both Fiat and the wider landscape of Italian industry. He was first person outside the Agnelli family to be at the helm of Turin-based Fiat, and — as the son of an Italian emigrant to Canada — was not groomed within the rarefied cliques that have dominated Italy’s industrial and banking sectors for generations.
Mr. Marchionne vaulted to instant fame in auto circles at the peak of the US financial crisis in 2009, when he wedged himself into the center of negotiations in Washington about what to do with failing auto giants General Motors and Chrysler, both on the brink of bankruptcy.
Mr. Marchionne became involved with then-President Obama’s Auto Task Force, which had the mandate to analyze companies and manage any possible bankruptcies. Mr. Marchionne convinced task force officials that Fiat, which he had run for only five years, was the right partner for Chrysler.
On April 30, 2009, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection. On June 10, Fiat and Chrysler announced the merger of the two companies, with Mr. Marchionne emerging as chief executive and, in the eyes of many, the savior of one of Motor City’s legacy companies.
‘‘So the industry looks like it’s going to sink into oblivion and this fellow who wears this black sweater, chain smokes, and drinks gallons of espresso manages to insert himself and convince these people that the best alternative for Chrysler is to merge with Fiat,’’ said Maryann Keller, a leading automotive industry analyst. ‘‘On its own, it doesn’t make any sense.’’
Mr. Marchionne engineered a brilliant deal for Fiat, Keller said.
The initial terms gave Fiat a 20 percent stake in Chrysler, and the US and Canadian governments, along with the United Auto Workers Union, held the rest. But the Italian carmaker could claim more equity if it met two requirements.
First, the company would have to assemble in North America a small car that would be fuel-efficient at a time of rising gasoline prices. Second, it would have to build a small, fuel-efficient engine on US soil. In exchange, Fiat would get control of Chrysler, free from liability, without paying a dime.
‘‘They gave away the store,’’ Keller said, adding that the two manufacturing demands put on Fiat were paltry compared to what Fiat got in return: billions of dollars in Chrysler assets and intellectual property.
But speaking to the CBS’s ‘‘60 Minutes’’ in 2012, Mr. Marchionne said taking on a failing company was a tall order. ‘‘All these things are long shots. All,’’ he said. ‘‘If it was that easy, then everybody would do it.’’
Mr. Marchionne found the key ingredients to the relaunch of an automotive giant, starting with restructuring the business.
He separated the pickup trucks from the Dodge brand and formed an entirely new pickup line called Ram, whose trucks were marketed for size, engine strength, and fast acceleration.
That brand, along with the Dodge line, which he successfully reimagined as the maker of a new American muscle car, has taken off in the US market.
The Jeep brand also thrived under his helm, selling globally and giving Fiat Chrysler a footprint in China, the world’s biggest auto market.
Mr. Marchionne changed the management structure at Chrysler — a signature tactic he had used throughout his career — and refused to sit in the chairman’s office on the top floor.
‘‘I’m on the floor with all the engineers,’’ he said in the ‘‘60 Minutes’’ interview. ‘‘I can build a car with all the guys on this floor. That’s all I care about.’’
In his 2015 analysis of the auto industry, ‘‘Confessions of a Capital Junkie,’’ Mr. Marchionne said consolidation was inevitable. He tried for another merger with General Motors, but the talks never advanced.
‘‘It’s highly unlikely that Chrysler would exist today had he not taken that gamble,’’ Autotrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs, told the Associated Press. ‘‘The company was in such bad shape, being stripped of any kind of resources by the previous owners.’’
Perhaps Mr. Marchionne’s biggest victory was recasting Chrysler in a positive light, positioning the company as a gritty, born-from-the-ashes American survivor. A 2011 Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler featured Detroit native and rapper Eminem and the slogan ‘‘Imported from Detroit.’’
‘‘He captured the attention of the auto market in ways others would be timid about,’’ Keller said of Mr. Marchionne. ‘‘He made it cool.’’
In June, at what would be his last public appearance as company chairman, Mr. Marchionne was in Rome for the presentation of a Jeep to Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri police.
Mr. Marchionne, whose father was a member of the Carabinieri, extolled the values of ‘‘seriousness, honesty, sense of duty, discipline, and spirit of service.’’