Howes: Marchionne’s mobility gambit keeps FCA in game

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Never count out Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne.

The guy whose company looks to be the global auto industry laggard in the race for leadership in next-gen mobility is the only guy who can claim a flashy, if limited, deal with Silicon Valley heavyweight Google Inc. Others expected to get there first didn’t.

Now Marchionne’s reportedly going for more. FCA is said to be pursuing talks with Uber Technologies Inc., the ride-sharing phenomenon, in an effort to close the gap with rivals General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., which last month confirmed its own strategic investment in Uber.

Ol’ Sergio needs to go for more because the Italian-American automaker is in danger of falling behind. That’s hardly the position to be in if you’re angling for a massive merger to focus capital spending, minimize costly duplication, maximize brand positioning and rule the automotive world.

FCA lacks the financial heft of its competition. It’s trailing in the drive for autonomous vehicle leadership. It doesn’t have the product development and advanced engineering depth of industry heavyweights, witness its slowness to joining the mobility melee and its also-ran metal in the passenger car space.

It’s in the unenviable position of needing to give pieces of itself (Google keeps the intellectual property of their joint testing) to get pieces of what it needs to be a player in the mobility game. How else to remain part of the next-generation conversation, to burnish the case for investors, to stay relevant should its on-again, off-again dance for a global partner be on again?

FCA is playing in a different way because, well, it has to. For more than a year, Marchionne and FCA’s chairman, Agnelli family scion John Elkann, have been peddling the logic behind Marchionne’s “Confessions of a Capital Junkie.”

They say the industry cannot continue to invest massive sums of shareholder money in duplication that delivers marginal value — four-cylinder engines that offer comparable performance, passenger cars that do not earn their cost of capital, infotainment technologies that can be indistinguishable to consumers.

The markets notice. Shares in FCA are down 40 percent over the past year, compared to a 21.7 percent decline for GM and a 17.8 percent decline for Ford. And that’s despite record North American profits for Detroit’s Big Two automakers.

Marchionne proposes consolidation. The only cure to the industry’s addiction to capital incineration and comparatively low returns on invested capital, he argues, are mergers engineered by smart, global execs (like him) that assemble a wider array of brands and capture ever-larger economies of scale.

The leading targets of Marchionne’s affection aren’t returning the sentiment. Not GM or Ford, not Renault-Nissan or Volkswagen AG. Each is placing more bets on mobility — confirming that the industry’s addiction to capital spending is not a figment of The Boss’s imagination.

Without incipient relationships with Google, Uber and whoever else, the successor to Fiat SpA and Chrysler Group LLC would be even less attractive (excluding the iconic Jeep) to would-be partners than it currently is. Mobility assets and/or established relationships with key Silicon Valley players will become standard equipment for global automakers, not luxury options.

The transition sweeping the industry is forcing C-suites from Detroit and Tokyo to Munich and Wolfsburg to place numerous bets on autonomous and ride-sharing technologies even as they must continue investing in the traditional car and truck business generating most of their revenue and profit.

The core business is expected to grow to $4 trillion annually by 2030 from $2.75 trillion last year, according to McKinsey & Co.’s “Automotive 2030” report. Meaning that chasing mobility plays at the expense of the car and truck making probably is not as smart as some people think — but it is necessary.

“Boring old car makers,” Elkann told shareholders in Exor, FCA’s largest shareholder, “need to figure out how to make this profitable and guard against falling into the 1990(s) trap of ignoring that business while chasing profits in other parts of the value chain.”

Marchionne’s play smells more like cooperation than competition. Such “co-opetition” theoretically can deliver results without the massive capital infusions that have defined the industry for as long as the investing public can remember.

FCA is likely to be a more willing partner for Silicon Valley partners who need automotive engineering and manufacturing expertise to realize their autonomous-vehicle visions without bargaining away their intellectual property in the process.

Ford’s allegedly imminent deal with Google was said to be killed by CEO Mark Fields because he refused to consign the Blue Oval to the role of contract manufacturer for a Silicon Valley powerhouse accustomed to calling the shots — especially with alleged losers in Detroit.

Not so much anymore.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.