FCA shoots for better margins than Ford, GM

Tommaso Ebhardt, Flavia Rotondi and Jamie Butters

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is aiming to earn bigger North American profit margins than Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. as soon as this year, paving the way for payouts to shareholders.

Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne’s desire is to beat Ford and GM in the fourth quarter, the last of his tenure, he said during a Bloomberg Television interview in Amsterdam. Fiat Chrysler plans to top its peers “by far,” he said after the Italian-American carmaker’s annual meeting.

“I don’t have a single doubt” that Fiat Chrysler will earn “leading-edge margins,” Marchionne said. “When it happens, I can’t tell you.”

For 2017, GM reported a 10.7 percent margin in North America on the basis of adjusted earnings before interest and taxes, topping Fiat Chrysler’s adjusted Ebit margin of 7.9 percent. Ford posted a North American operating margin of 8 percent.

Marchionne’s target is for Fiat Chrysler to end this year with about 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) in net industrial cash. In June, the company will outline a new five-year plan in which share buybacks and dividends become “endemic” to its structure, he said.

Fiat Chrysler hasn’t paid a dividend since its formation in 2014, standing in contrast with its U.S. peers. The company is proceeding carefully on choosing the right internal candidate to replace its long-standing CEO, who predicted changeover at companies including Renault SA and Daimler AG.

“I think it’s time for change,” Marchionne said in the interview. Renault’s Carlos Ghosn “will eventually have to give up, even though I think he’s going to live forever,” as will Daimler’s Dieter Zetsche. “We’re all getting to the point where we’ve put in 10- to 15- years’ worth as a life of a CEO, and I think it’s time to pass the baton to somebody else.”

Fiat Chrysler shares reversed losses in New York and gained 0.26 percent Friday, giving the company a market value of more than $36 billion.