Head of Ram, Fiat Chrysler sales exits after his whistleblower lawsuit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Ram truck brand and U.S. sales is leaving the company almost eight months after he filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against his employer.

Reid Bigland will leave effective April 3 to "pursue interests outside of FCA," the Italian American automaker said Wednesday in a statement. His departure means the loss of a 22-year veteran in its profitable truck segment and in the market that represents a majority of the company's revenues ahead of a transatlantic merger with French automaker Groupe PSA and amid major transformations toward autonomous and electric vehicles.

"This is an industry that is in an extremely chaotic period and a period of uncertainly," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "There is lots of competition, and the opportunities are significant everywhere. Where the money is made is in the trucks and SUVs and the crossovers, especially at FCA. Somebody like that is pretty valuable."

Reid Bigland, head of the Ram brand and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's U.S. sales, is leaving the automaker after 22 years.

In June, Bigland sued Fiat Chrysler, alleging executives had retaliated against him for cooperating with federal investigators probing inflated vehicle sales practices. Bigland claimed his pay had been cut 90%, costing him more than $1.8 million. FCA has said his pay was withheld because he is implicated in the conspiracy.

The legal actions "have been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved," the automaker said in a statement.

Still, the departure doesn't come as a surprise, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive Inc.'s Autotrader. "There have been very high-profile tensions between Reid and the company for some time," Krebs said, adding with the pending merger, more departures are likely.

Three people have been named to take over Bigland's responsibilities. Bigland, who also is head of FCA Canada, was not available for an interview. Automotive News first reported his departure.

"It has been a privilege to have been part of the FCA family and to have worked alongside our dealer business partners," Bigland said in a statement.

Effective immediately, Jeff Komor, vice president of U.S. sales operations, fleet and small business sales since 2015, takes over as head of U.S. sales. David Buckingham, FCA Canada chief operating officer, is promoted to chairman, president and CEO there. And Mike Koval Jr., director of U.S. Ram brand product marketing, fills in as interim head of the Ram in North America. All will report to Mark Stewart, chief operating officer in North America.

Fiat Chrysler's U.S. sales fell just 1% year-over-year in 2019, bolstered by record profit-heavy Ram sales that were up 28% and surpassed General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Silverado sales for the first time ever.

"He’s helped spearhead the growth of Ram that has been astronomical for a market that does not take kindly to change. It's been Chevy and Ford for ages," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at Pennsylvania-based AutoForecast Solutions. "I fully expect someone to take advantage of his experience and his abilities to drive a brand like Ram, especially with a new wave of electric trucks coming."

In 1999, Bigland joined Western Star Truck Sales Inc., which in 2000 was acquired by DaimlerChrysler AG. He became head of the company's Canadian operations in 2006. He held executive roles with Alfa Romeo, Dodge, Maserati and Ram. Bigland was appointed in 2011 as head of U.S. sales. In 2018 he added head of the Ram brand to his titles. Prior to joining the company, he was president of Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., a South Carolina-based company.

In September, Fiat Chrysler agreed to settle with the federal government charges that the automaker misled investors and falsely reported the number of new vehicles sold between 2012 and 2016 by using a "cookie jar" from which to pull previous unreported sales for an uninterrupted "streak." Fiat Chrysler agreed to pay $40 million, but did not admit guilt or deny the findings. Bigland has said he inherited the practice.

More recently, the New York State Automobiles Dealers last month sent a cease-and-desist letter to the automaker regarding its sales practices and threatened to sue over incentives that may disadvantage small dealers, Bloomberg first reported. Fiat Chrysler adopted a system that seeks to forecast the types of vehicles dealers will order, which influences what it will manufacture. But mismatches between the predictions and real orders left the company with tens of thousands of excess inventory last year, resulting in the offering of incentives that rewards dealers who can take on more of the unassigned vehicles.

Bigland's departure is the latest shakeup in Detroit Three leadership. Ford Motor Co. strategy chief Jim Farley was promoted to chief operating officer as Joe Hinrichs, president of automotive, retires, the company announced last month. Those changes were made following disappointing annual earnings results from the botched launch of the Explorer SUV and warranty costs.


Twitter: @BreanaCNoble