Fiat Chrysler CEO Marchionne led 14-year turnaround

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
John Elkann, president of the FCA Italy group, right, gives his necktie to famously tie-less Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne prior to a press conference in Balocco, Italy, Friday, June 1, 2018. In his last big presentation as CEO of Fiat Chrysler before retiring, Marchionne announced a big investment push to make more electrified cars, while acknowledging that traditional engines will continue to dominate production for some time.

Balocco, Italy – CEO Sergio Marchionne told investors he doesn't matter anymore.

"I’ve become irrelevant in all this," he said at Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV's Italian proving grounds outside Milan, capping the presentation of a five-year business plan that would extend far beyond Marchionne's retirement next April.

Chuckles rose from investors gathered here Friday because Marchionne has been essential in the 14 years he's been leading Fiat Chrysler. He saved both of the namesake brands from oblivion, ushered Chrysler from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, revived Alfa Romeo in the United States and is expected to slash net industrial debt to zero.

Now he says his mission is complete, and the promised plan his successor will inherit is already in motion. It aims to make FCA the most profitable automaker in the U.S. and achieve profit margins of 11 percent by 2022.

If FCA can even come close to these lofty benchmarks, it will punctuate the radical transformation of a car company assembled from two industry laggards, one of which the Obama administration was prepared to leave for dead in the depths of the Great Recession.

"The bulk of this business is producing earnings which are almost genetically predetermined," Marchionne said, "because of decisions that have been made in the past and which are now being executed in a market where that call has been made. The reality is 80 percent of the earnings of this house in 2022 are only going to come from the four brands that we heard about today."

FCA plans to leverage the Jeep and Ram brands at home and abroad with higher-margin products for both brands that fill holes in their respective portfolios. Maserati is targeting Tesla Inc. with high-performance plug-in electric cars, while Alfa Romeo leans into China's rich premium market.

Jeep, FCA's earnings powerhouse, will get a host of new products. That includes a Jeep pickup, a subcompact SUV for emerging markets, the return of the full-sized Grand Wagoneer SUV and a Deserthawk trim for the Grand Cherokee to round out the trio of Trackhawk and Trailhawk.

Ram is targeting areas of the truck market dominated by rivals Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. with a performance version of its 1500 pickup truck and a return to the midsize pickup truck game, both by 2022.

It's a plan that Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst with IHS Markit, says "demonstrates the company’s particularly strong skill at maintaining brand DNA and vision, when it wants to. The views forward for Jeep, Maserati and Alfa Romeo in particular support very clear brand visions."

These plans for what Marchionne called FCA's four global brands include a ramp-up in Europe, China and India for Jeep; a play for the premium market in China from Alfa Romeo; and significant growth for Maserati in North America and China. Fiat and Chrysler, the company's namesake brands, will be focused in their home markets.

Marchionne's five-year master plan is ambitious, echoing the past two outlooks he delivered in Auburn Hills. But this time there is a global approach signaling larger shifts in the automotive market, especially in faster-growth markets outside Europe and North America. 

"They have a lot to catch up on, particularly in China," said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "But just because they’re late to the party doesn’t mean they won’t have the best dress on."

Marchionne is accustomed to tackling challenges others think impossible. In his time at Fiat Chrysler, he achieved what his predecessors at two different companies in two different continents couldn't: saving Fiat and Chrysler, automakers once considered the weakest players on their respective continents. 

Marchionne is trying to reinvent Fiat and Chrysler, two storied brands rooted in the industrial history of their home countries, one more time with a five-year plan that positions them to lead FCA into electrification and autonomy.

Chrysler, the minivan pioneer, works best as a people-moving vessel for a driverless future, he said. And Fiat will become an electrified and urban car for Europe, a market facing strict emissions regulations that is creeping toward outlawing the diesel engine.

On Thursday, Chrysler strengthened its partnership with Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, a leader in the autonomy race. The companies are in talks to build an all-new autonomous vehicle together, most likely a variation of its Pacifica van built in Windsor.

"Our objective is to be the first to license this technology and make it commercially available in our vehicles," Marchionne said.

Delivering on that promise would be a come-from-behind victory for the CEO whose decision to mostly forego its own autonomous technology development has been criticized as short-sighted. As recently as the Detroit auto show in January, Marchionne openly questioned the financial viability of electrified and autonomous vehicles.

The plans with Waymo, coupled with a pledge to invest $10.5 billion in electrifying 30 models over four brands by 2022, appear not to have satisfied Wall Street. FCA shares plunged 7 percent Friday, closing at $21.55.

"Marchionne unveiled an ambitious and solid plan which confirmed all the expectations from investors,” Vincenzo Longo, a strategist at IG Group in Milan, told Bloomberg. “Still, Marchionne didn’t provide any icing on the cake which would have been a big M&A deal, which is what the market was dreaming for."

Marchionne gained control of Chrysler in 2009, the year Chrysler Group LLC filed for bankruptcy at the insistence of the Obama administration's auto task force. On Friday, nearly a decade later, the FCA CEO took the stage in a tie, signaling that the Italian-American automaker would pay off its net industrial debt by June 30.

"We have pursued a disciplined and rigorous strategy to eliminate our net industrial debt, reversing a legacy that has dogged both Fiat and Chrysler for decades," Marchionne said. "Having used the capital markets to help us transform into a viable global automaker over the first ten years of my tenure as CEO, reducing that debt has been one of our major objectives over the past five years."

It's a huge step toward putting the Chrysler bankruptcy squarely in the rear-view mirror and freeing up much-needed capital to get FCA through its ambitious five-year plan. FCA plans to deploy some $52.5 billion (45 billion euros) in capital expenditure over the next five years to achieve its 2022 goals.

With elimination of net industrial debt and the revenue and profit potential of a planned financial lending arm, FCA is also targeting between $10.7 billion (9.2 billion euros) and $12.1 billion (10.4 billion euros) in pre-tax earnings in 2020. That's projected to grow to a range of $15.2 billion (13 billion euros) to $18.7 billion (16 billion euros) in 2022 with profit margins between 9 percent and 11 percent.

These targets arguably would have been unthinkable in the depths of bankruptcy nearly a decade ago. And the magnitude of FCA's turnaround is not lost on the 65-year-old Marchionne.

"FCA leaders were born out of adversity and operate without sheet music," he said in his closing remarks Friday. "It’s the only way we know."