Under new chief, Fiat Chrysler future still more Jeeps, Ram trucks

Ian Thibodeau Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Mike Manley shares the stage with a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk at the North American International Auto Show in this January 16, 2018 file photo.

The British executive who supercharged Jeep and made the most American of brands a worldwide sales leader will rely on that experience to lead all of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

Mike Manley was appointed Saturday as the Italian-American automaker's next CEO.  Analysts — and the company's board — say the 54-year-old is the right man at the right time to continue longtime CEO Sergio Marchionne's push toward with driving profits in an increasingly saturated and competitive SUV and truck market, and a rapidly changing global automotive industry.

Mike Manley

In an emergency meeting in Italy, the automaker's board of directors replaced the 66-year-old Marchionne, who led the company for 14 years but is said to be in serious condition in a Swiss hospital with complications following surgery a few weeks ago.

Manley's value is evidenced in the five-year plan Marchionne laid out in June: The Jeep and Ram brands are the backbone of Fiat Chrysler's latest road map. The plan relies heavily on leveraging the Jeep and Ram brands in the U.S. and around the globe by launching more high-margin SUVs and trucks. Those products are expected to fund investment in electrification and autonomous-vehicle technology.

The company said Manley was being asked to follow the plan set forth by Marchionne that guides the company to 2022, when it aims to be the most profitable carmaker in the United States. It will not be without challenges.

"Mike Manley is a worthy replacement at FCA, but it’s a huge job to not only fill Sergio’s shoes, but to run many brands that are facing capricious fortunes in a variety of markets," said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "Manley’s masterful management of Jeep and Ram will serve him well as he moves into this huge, global role."

Jeep is promising 14 electrified vehicles in the next five years, including four battery-electric options. By 2021, every Jeep nameplate will have an electrification option. The off-road brand is also going to add mobility options starting next year, with a planned car-borrowing experiment in the Northeast.

Sergio Marchionne, left, and Jeep CEO Mike Manley pose with a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Northern Italy in this Monday, April 11, 2011 file photo.

Ram planners hope a new performance pickup called the TRX – and a yet-unnamed  midsize pickup to compete against the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Ranger – will boost annual global sales for Ram to 1 million by 2022. In the U.S., Ram's largest market, ​​​the automaker sold 556,790 Ram vehicles last year.

While Marchionne's plan incorporates the entire Fiat Chrysler lineup, Jeep and Ram are foundation of the strategy. Analysts said it's fitting that Manley would assume the helm, even under unfortunate circumstances that have Marchionne exiting the company months ahead of his planned retirement.

"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," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "His international experience in growing that brand will play a key role as he applies those techniques to all of the Fiat Chrysler divisions.” 

Manley's imprint

Manley's sense of humor and often-grizzled appearance were a good fit for Fiat Chrysler during a casual era in which the CEO was known for wearing a rumpled black sweater no matter the occasion.

But beneath the informal exterior, insiders say Manley is a brilliant executive focused on achieving the company's goal of making Jeep a super-brand. 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. 

Manley took charge of Jeep in 2009 and Ram in 2015. Under his leadership, sales of both brands 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.

From just 231,701 Jeeps sold in the U.S. in 2009 when Fiat took over assets of the failing 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 relentlessly focused his staff on Jeep's core values to make sure the brand's personality stands out in a crowded marketplace. 

Under Manley's 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.

He pushed Jeep into international markets. 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. Along with global titans like McDonald's and Disney, the brand is widely known as one America's most iconic, with roots reaching back to World War II.

Manley, who was born in Edenbridge, Great Britain, is expected to make his first public remarks as CEO during the company's second-quarter financial results call on Wednesday.

Marchionne's health

Company representatives have declined to go into detail about Marchionne's medical condition but said he’s not returning to work.

 An Italian newspaper reported Sunday that Marchionne is in extremely serious condition in a Zurich hospital. Il Messaggero, a newspaper based in Rome, said his condition had worsened and that two sons were with him, along with his partner Manuela Battezzato, who works in communications for the automaker.

Marchionne, a native of Italy whose family moved to Canada when he was a teenager, had been on medical leave for several weeks. His last public appearance was June 26, when he spoke at an event in Rome. The company said July 5 that he was expected to require “a short period of convalescence” after shoulder surgery.

Sergio Marchionne speaks at the press conference at the FCA headquarters in Auburn Hills in this May 6, 2014 file photo.

But Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann, heir to the Agnelli family that founded Fiat, sounded a somber tone Saturday, saying in a statement he was "profoundly saddened to learn of Sergio’s state of health. It is a situation that was unthinkable until a few hours ago, and one that leaves us all with a real sense of injustice."

Marchionne was one of the longest-serving CEOs in the auto industry, appointed in 2004 as the fifth Fiat chief in a two-year period. He managed to return the carmaker to profit in 2005 by cutting costs, laying off workers and then looking for a partner. The company had lost more than 6 billion euros ($7.04 billion) in 2003.

In 2009, Marchionne managed to take ownership of Chrysler Group LLC assets without putting up cash as it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under the guidance of the federal government. He pledged to reopen factories and share technology with the struggling U.S. carmaker.

By acquiring Chrysler, Marchionne gave Fiat the global scale it needed to survive. Still, as the world’s seventh-largest automaker, the company may lack the size it needs to compete in an industry being reinvented by the emergence of autonomous driving and electrification.

In leading a 14-year turnaround, Marchionne returned the U.S. carmaker to health, revived Alfa Romeo in the United States and pushed the company toward slashing net industrial debt to zero.

He said in early June while laying out his road map for the future that his mission there was complete, and his successor would inherit a plan already in motion to make Fiat Chrysler the most profitable automaker in the U.S. by 2022.

FCA plans to deploy some $52.5 billion (45 billion euros) in capital expenditure over the next five years to achieve its 2022 goals of leveraging the highly profitable Jeep and Ram brands in the U.S. and abroad with higher-margin products that fill holes in their respective portfolios.

In recent months, Marchionne was preparing to slow down but wanted first to complete the five-year plan to rid the carmaker of industrial debt, making it financially stronger and able to survive the next downturn. "I am a fixer," he said. "Until something is definitively fixed, I can’t stop."


Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Detroit News Staff Writers Nora Naughton and Keith Laing contributed