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Marchionne Trips Over Quips

But CEO's actions speak louder than words.

by on Feb.09, 2011

Loose lips sink...? CEO Marchionne has had to back off on a number of recent comments.

It’s been a week of backpedaling for Sergio Marchionne, the outspoken CEO of both Chrysler and its Italian affiliate, Fiat.

Seldom shy about expressing himself, the Canadian-educated executive has been tripped up by a series of quips, starting with remarks made, over the last week, that have managed to upset Canadians, Jewish groups, Italian unions, the City of Turin and the Italy’s teetering govenrment, which summoned Marchionne to Rome for an explanation of his loose talk.

The trouble began following a San Francisco speech during which he used the often anti-Semitic term, “shyster” to describe what he saw as excessive interest rates applied on the loans offered by the U.S. and Canadian governments, in 2009, to save Chrysler from liquidation.

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The executive next suggested that Fiat might move its headquarters to Detroit, which became huge news across Italy.  It didn’t help that Marchionne had, back in November, made disparaging remarks about his homeland on the popular Italian television show, “Che tempo chef a,” insisting Fiat “cannot continue…forever” operate in a country where, he insisted, a lack of productivity is considered an acceptable norm.

Marchionne quickly apologized for the shyster remarks. He also tried to tamp down the talk about shifting Fiat’s center of gravity to the U.S., or out of a network of regional headquarters in Turin, Auburn Hills. Brazil and somewhere in Asia.

The executive did not back off from comments that suggested Chrysler and Fiat eventually would be merged, sometime following the IPO planned for the U.S. maker during the second half of 2011.  But what’s now unclear is precisely where it would be operated – out of Turin, Fiat’s ancestral home – or with a dual U.S./Italian base.

There’s little question Marchionne is intent on shaking things up.  Fiat recently shed its industrial business – spun off as a separate company — as Marchionne moves to make the remaining automotive company more dynamic.

Nonetheless, despite the controversies of the last week, it appears Marchionne continues to enjoy strong support from Fiat’s founding clan the Agnelli family, as well as from other key backers who have been pleased by the recent performance of Fiat and the improving numbers offered by Chrysler, which the CEO expects to deliver as much as $500 million in profits this year.

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