Almost exactly five years after taking control of the bankrupt automaker, CEO Sergio Marchionne will outline his global strategy for both Detroit-based Chrysler and its Italian partner Fiat during a day-long strategy session this week.
The marathon meeting will be a follow-up to one that Marchionne and his management team staged shortly after Chrysler emerged from Chapter 11 protection in 2009 – a session that saw skeptics question whether the U.S. maker could survive, never mind flourish under Italian control. But five years later, that’s exactly what is happening, Chrysler last week reporting its 49th consecutive monthly sales gain as it continued to outpace the industry’s overall recovery.
But the smallest of Detroit’s so-called Big Three has plenty of challenges to deal with – as does partner Fiat. Together, the newly merged Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) will need to sharpen and, in some cases, redefine the identity of its various brands, roll out a wave of new products, and expand its presence in key emerging markets. That’s especially true for Chrysler which was pushed out of China after the collapse of its previous marriage to Germany’s Daimler AG.
The maker has been offering a number of signals in recent months suggesting what the Tuesday strategy session will outline for journalists and investment analysts:
*On the product front, the Dodge brand has been honing its image as a muscle car manufacturer, unveiling new versions of the Challenger and Charger at the New York Auto Show;
* Maserati has been offering an assortment of new luxury sports models and hinting at what’s to come with the well-received Alfieri Concept that debuted in Geneva;
* Jeep has not only added new models, such as the compact Renegade also unveiled in Geneva, but it has also outlined plans to begin manufacturing products in China;
(Jeep unveils four Beijing Auto Show Concepts, announces return to China. Click Here for more.)
* The Alfa Romeo brand finally marked its return to the U.S. market with the showing of the Alfa 4C sports car at last month’s NY Auto Show, and Marchionne is expected to reveal plans to broadly expand the struggling brand’s line-up going forward;
* The flagship Fiat brand is expected to hone its focus on distinctive small cars, particularly models that can tap into the growing demand for high-mileage passenger cars and crossovers around the world.
(Alfa stages a quiet return to the US with NY Auto Show debut of 4C. Click Here for a closer look.)
At the other extreme, the Ram brand is expected to become even more of a player in the commercial market, both in the U.S. and overseas. The flagship for the U.S. side of the company, the Chrysler brand, needs new product and a better definition of what it will offer going forward. Among other things, the meeting is likely to confirm that the Chrysler brand will offer the company’s only U.S. minivan model going forward.
Just like Chrysler, the company’s supercar brand Ferrari is expected to continue pushing into new segments of the market – reflecting the explosive product proliferation shaking the entire luxury car segment. Ferrari has delivered some surprises in recent years, including the wagon-like FF, though it is expected to reaffirm it will never offer a four-door model.
Chrysler has been bucking the trend in the industry towards brand consolidation in recent years, even offering models under the SRT and MOPAR badges. Expect to see those come up for discussion, as well.
And several sources have suggested there could be “a few surprises” to emerge from the Tuesday strategy session.
The hard-nosed Marchionne has been driving his team hard since taking over as CEO of what were then two separate companies in early 2009. He has shown a mixture of optimism and cautious pragmatism in outlining his goals – starting with a session in November of that year that generated a significant amount of skepticism about plans to turn Chrysler around. While he admits a few goals haven’t been met, Marchionne today insists that his team delivered on almost everything they promised back then.
There are, indeed, a number of success stories, including the latest versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Ram. The new Jeep Cherokee is on a successful track – but the Dodge Dart has been a big disappointment, as has the Fiat 500L. And it remains to be seen if the company can pull off the continued platform sharing that will more closely unite the U.S. and Italian sides of FCA.
(Click Here for the first review of the new 2015 Chrysler 200.)
And they have plenty more challenges. China will be a critical one. Ironically, Jeep was the first foreign maker to set up a manufacturing operation there but what was known as Beijing Jeep was retained by the German side of the company following the break-up of DaimlerChrysler AG. Chrysler’s various brands today have far less of a presence outside North American than do cross-town rivals General Motors and Ford Motor Co.
But Fiat has its own challenges in a variety of markets, including Latin America, China and at home where Europe is only now bottoming out from its worst recession in decades. In fact, Chrysler is now providing the cash to prop up the Italian side of the company.
(Marchionne aims to boost FCA global production by 25%. Click Here for the rest of the story.)
With plans to shift its listing to the New York Stock Exchange in October, FCA wants to get off to a good start by building confidence among both the automotive media and investors. And it is likely to announce some aggressive spending plans to show it can keep up with its competitors.
That could mean a 17% bump in investments over the next five years, to $55 billion, forecasts Richard Hilgert, an analyst with Morningstar Inc.
The original, 2009 strategic summit had a sort of rawness to it, almost as if plans were being laid out on the fly. This time, observers say, Marchionne and team will need to deliver a message that they have clearly thought through what they need to do next and that they not only can come up with the necessary cash, but know the right ways to spend it.