Montezemolo’s Ferrari departure no laughing matter

After announcing his departure as Ferrari chairman at a news conference Wednesday, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo put his hands on Sergio Marchionne’s shoulders and gently pulled him away from a scrum with journalists eager to ask more questions.

“After Cernobbio, I have to keep an eye on him,” he joked.

Montezemolo was referring to Marchionne’s criticism of Ferrari’s lack of Formula One success at an event Sunday in the Italian town of Cernobbio. Marchionne also said nobody was indispensable.

For Montezemolo, it was no laughing matter. After 23 years as the undisputed leader of Ferrari, Montezemolo abruptly found himself without a job. And for an elegant aristocrat like himself, the news of his departure could not have come in a more indelicate way.

Marchionne’s comments caused a storm in the Italian media. It seemed that the CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns 90 percent of Ferrari, was pushing Montezemolo out and the media interpreted his Cernobbio outburst as a premature announcement of his decision.

Montezemolo’s influence within the company had already been greatly diminished. He stepped down as Fiat chairman in 2010 and later lost his seat as a director when a new board was recently formed for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). His presence within the group was as chairman of Ferrari — nothing more.

At Wedesday’s news conference at Ferrari’s museum in Maranello, Montezemolo sat next to Marchionne at a table before a crowd of journalists, explaining how he was stepping down to let a new era begin at Ferrari under FCA.

“Today Ferrari is part of a group that needs a single leader,” he said.

Recently created after Fiat’s purchase of the rest of Chrysler, FCA was becoming less Italian and more international, with its headquarters in London and an upcoming stock listing in New York.

This audacious creation of the world’s seventh-largest carmaker was of Marchionne’s making, and he was progressively consolidating his control over its operations.

Local news reports spoke of how Marchionne wanted Ferrari to work closer with Maserati and Alfa Romeo to help FCA relaunch them as luxury and premium brands.

Montezemolo, meanwhile, was said to have resisted the idea, wanting to preserve the relative autonomy that Ferrari had enjoyed within the group.

Looking pale and slightly withered, Montezemolo, 67, put on a brave face, joking about how FCA shareholders had been on his back to switch jobs with Marchionne.

“I will be going to Detroit to work for a large automaker,” he said.

The comment was partially true because Marchionne was replacing him as chairman at Ferrari while remaining CEO of FCA.

Montezemolo said he would have like to have stayed in the job until next year, but recent events had obliged him to reconsider.

Montezemolo and Marchionne acknowledged that they had sometimes disagreed in the decade they had worked together, but the two men tried hard to show they were the best of friends. They laughed at each other’s jokes. They occasionally patted each other on the arm or back. During a pause in the questioning by journalists, they would lean toward each other to exchange a few words in hushed tones in an apparent attempt to show the intimacy they shared.

But they did not convince anybody. Seeing them sitting side-by-side showed how they could not have been more different: Marchionne, the son of a police officer, whose family emigrated to Canada from Italy, wore his trademark dark sweater and baggy pants, while Montezemolo, of noble descent, had a gray, tailored suit with shirt and tie.

John Elkann, whose grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, was a friend of Montezemolo, was not present, preferring to release a statement thanking him for his work and wishing him the best in his next endeavor.

Elkann had succeeded Montezemolo as chairman of Fiat and ran Exor, the Agnelli family’s holding company that owns about 30 percent of FCA.

Montezemolo is to stay until Oct. 13, the day FCA will likely list its stock in New York.

In a video on the website of Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Editor Daniele Manca said Marchionne had likely wanted to show investors there was one man in charge: him.

Given how he had often surprised them in the past with his maneuvers to create value for shareholders, they would likely welcome it, Manca said. “With Marchionne [this is] a group that can bring a lot of satisfaction,” he said.