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As the man who guided Jeep and Ram to meteoric success, Mike Manley's sense of humor and often-grizzled appearance were a good fit for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles during a casual era in which former CEO Sergio Marchionne was known for wearing a black crewneck sweater no matter the occasion.

But beneath the informal exterior of the new Fiat Chrysler chief chosen Saturday, insiders say Manley is the smartest man in the room, a brilliant executive focused on achieving the company's goal of making Jeep a super-brand.  

Michael Manley, 54, assumed the helm of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on Saturday after eight years heading the company's Jeep brand and nearly three leading Ram. He was named CEO in an emergency board of directors meeting in Italy, as the company disclosed that Marchionne's health had taken a serious turn due to complications after surgery.

Under Manley's leadership, sales at Jeep and Ram have surged, contrary to the anemic sales of Fiat and Chrysler. That's led some insiders to joke that Fiat Chrysler should be renamed Jeep Ram.

While guarded about his personal life, the laconic British-born Manley has been the public face of Jeep at auto shows and product debuts as the brand climbed the sales charts. 

From just 231,701 Jeeps sold in the U.S. in 2009 when Fiat took over assets of the bankrupt Chrysler Group LLC, Jeep sales have increased four-fold as Manley transformed the off-road brand into a full-line SUV-maker just as the market was turning to sport utilities.

Manley has relentlessly focused his staff on Jeep's core values to make sure the brand's personality stands out in a crowded marketplace. 

Under his watch, Jeep re-asserted the rugged Wrangler as its iconic vehicle, and added three new models: the (reborn) Cherokee, compact Compass and subcompact Renegade. Riding the sport-utility wave, U.S. sales exploded to 926,376 by 2016 before leveling off at 828,522 last year. While not yet in the league of megabrands like Ford and Chevrolet which sell over 2 million vehicles a year, Jeep has big ambitions.

Along with U.S. sales, Manley led Jeep's sales push internationally.  Along with other global titans like McDonald's and Disney, it is widely known as one America's most iconic brands, going back to its World War II roots.

Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said Manley is "a very worthy replacement" for Marchionne. She cited Manley's global expertise and experience running Jeep, especially the highly successful launch of the Jeep Wrangler this year. 

"While running FCA is a wider, broader job than running Jeep and Ram, Manley has been a loyal and worthy lieutenant to Marchionne for years," Lindland said.

Worldwide Jeep sales now crest 1.4 million, and the brand has grown from four plants in the U.S. in 2009 to 10 plants in six countries this year. The compact Jeep Compass alone is made in four countries, the subcompact Renegade in three.

Manley is expected to make his first public remarks as CEO during the company's second-quarter financial results call on Wednesday.

Lindland said Manley has been "well in the running" to replace Marchionne since the ailing FCA leader announced his initial plan to retire next year.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, added: “The success of the Jeep brand under Mike Manley and his global background make him the smart choice to be the new head of FCA. His international experience in growing that brand will play a key role as he applies those techniques to all of the Fiat Chrysler divisions.” 

 

The United Auto Workers union also praised the appointment.

“UAW FCA members look forward to working and bargaining with Mike Manley and his team as we head into the 2019 negotiations," UAW President Gary Jones said. "Mr. Manley inherits a proud workforce that is known for its quality work and is committed to building the best products in the industry."

Manley joined the former DaimlerChrysler in 2000 as director of network development for DaimlerChrysler United Kingdom Ltd. He worked a stint as chief operating officer for the Asian region and was executive for the international activities of Chrysler outside of the North American Free Trade Agreement, where he was responsible for implementing agreements for distribution of Chrysler products through Fiat’s international network.

Manley, a native of Edenbridge, Great Britain, holds a master of business administration from Ashridge Management College.

Read more: FCA picks Mike Manley, head of Jeep, Ram, to replace Marchionne

Read more: Marchionne won't return to FCA, Ferrari

Read more: FCA chairman calls ailing Marchionne a 'true friend'

Read more: Fiat Chrysler CEO Marchionne led 14-year turnaround

Read more:  FCA setting audacious five-year goals

Read more: Electric cars not worth investment, says Marchionne

Read more: Former FCA exec pleads guilty to conspiracy cover-up

 

klaing@detroitnews.com

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