Sergio Marchionne Rallies The Troops

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is an agonizing character. There can be no doubt that he’s one of the smartest execs in the business, and yet he so often comes off as the stuffy, pedantic college professor, who sputters into ad hominem at the faintest sign of criticism. His speeches often revolve around stock speaking points and a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and as the video above proves, his delivery is rarely inspiring. But between the Einstein quotes and plaintive self-sympathy, Marchionne can offer moments of unexpected candor. His speech to Chrysler’s dealers earlier this week offered several such moments, and though it’s too long (and, frankly, boring) to reprint in its entirety (click here for the whole thing), here are a few stunners from the mind of Marchionne.

Marchionne opened his speech by referencing Chrysler’s last big dealer meeting: a Las Vegas blowout with the previous (Cerberus Capital Management) leadership.

As I was preparing these comments yesterday, I came across our daily press clippings, and in an article in Automotive News discussing the meeting we are holding right now, I found this statement from one of the American dealers in this room.

He was quoted as saying:

“Last time we did this was at a meeting in Las Vegas — guys named Press and Nardelli, and they came off terrific. Two years later they were selling us down the road. Even if these guys come off terrific, there’s still a healing process.”

And then it dawned on me that this is no ordinary dealer convention.

We have travelled a long road since Las Vegas. A lot of that road was uncertain, uneven, unpleasant and left all of us with a deeply felt sense of discomfort. It left no clear direction as to the future.

Fred Diaz, Reid Bigland, Joe ChamaSrour, Mike Manley, Pete Grady and Pietro Gorlier have done an outstanding job to bridge us to here. But it has been a bridge and we know it.

We also know that the healing process that the American dealer referred to goes beyond the relationship between Chrysler and its dealer body. What is ultimately needed is a reconnection to the heart of the market, of the brands to their customers.

And it was on that note that Marchionne dove into the lion’s den, referencing Pulitzer Prize-winning auto journalist Dan Neil’s characterization of the Chrysler experiment

We are seeking to restore credibility and confidence in a company whose past economic and commercial failures are still too fresh and vivid in the minds of the public to be forgotten.

There was an article written by Dan Neil, a Pulitzer winning writer in the Wall Street Journal a few weekends ago, evaluating our newest product introduction, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I think it is the very first time that reference is made to the literary trend of New Criticism in an automotive review. Pretty snotty intellectual stuff, but it is the Wall Street Journal after all. Just bear with me for a few moments.

New Criticism emphasized a close reading of the text, excluding factors such as an author’s biographical details, historical circumstances and other so-called extra-textual materials to arrive at an interpretation.

“At that time,” Neil writes, “this was a terribly good idea since criticism had reached a point where scholars were earnestly speculating about how Shakespeare’s bad breath might have influenced ‘Hamlet’. To New Critics, all that mattered was the text. And that brings us to the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

And then the article begins a series of questions about the extra-textual aspects of our company: “Do we consider the swamp out of which this vehicle emerges—last year’s bankrupting of Chrysler, the auto bailout, the ignominious handoff from Daimler to Cerberus Management and now to Fiat? Can we somehow put out of our minds Chrysler’s current kennel of mangy mutts” like some of Chrysler’s obsolete models, that if you were to buy “you’d have to be an automotive pervert, a gerontophile? Is it possible for consumers to look just at the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the text of the thing, and forget the Italian-managed goat rodeo going on in the background? Well, I don’t know,” is Neil’s response, “but if they do, I think they’ll like what they see.”

By the way, do not worry. I too had to look up the meaning of gerontophile. It is a person who is sexually attracted to an old person. I just turned 58, and I so do not think it applies to me yet. But at least there is hope for the future.

The piece closes with another question: “But will people give it a chance? Perhaps. But only if Chrysler LLC can change the conversation, and fast. Repeat after me, Chrysler: 2009 never happened. It’s all about the text.”

I wanted to read this article to you for two reasons.

First, because I do not want you to think that I am suffering about any illusions or delusions about the context within which we are collectively operating. We know that the conversation about Chrysler up to recent days has not been about the text of the thing. It is been predominantly about our past, our misses, our failures to deliver onto customer expectations, and to be fair, about some of your own failures in delivering proper customer service to an ever more demanding market place.

But secondly, and more importantly, because all the presentations you have heard today from my colleagues have been about product, about the text of things. Forget about the music, and the lights, and the slides. The last seven hours have been about the text of things, about product.

Of course Marchionne can’t help putting down Neil’s “snotty, intellectual stuff,” but he’s also admitting that the critics are worth listening to. That’s not a position that Marchionne has embraced throughout his time at Chrysler, as he’s typically preferred the dismissive slam to the introspective reading. The tacit admission that his product lineup is a “kennel of mangy mutts” and that Auburn Hills is the site of an “Italian-managed goat rodeo” is the first time that Marchionne has confronted Chrysler’s issues on an honest level. Too often, Marchionne seems more pleased with himself for snagging Chrysler for free with a taxpayer ribbon on top than seized with the terrible reality of Chrysler’s image and products. His honesty and willingness to face the harshest critics (albeit in referencing a favorable review) is certainly heartening.

After all, who expects, candor and introspection from a dealer meeting?

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2 of 10 comments
  • Crc Crc on Sep 16, 2010

    I pretty much like Sergio and I think Chrysler is in good hands. But dammit I'm gonna be pissed if they tease the Jeep truck concept again and don't put it into production. I got to see the Gladiator in person and have wanted one ever since.

  • Jimboy Jimboy on Sep 16, 2010

    Good article, Eddie. Lots of food for thought, and I, too, loved the 'goat rodeo' comment!

  • FreedMike Race car drivers are all alpha-types. Aggression is part of the deal. I think you see more of that stuff in NASCAR because crashes - the end result of said aggression - are far more survivable than they would be in F1 or IndyCar.
  • Analoggrotto Only allow Tesla drivers to race, we are the epitome of class and brilliance.
  • Wjtinfwb When my kids turned 16 and got their Operators, we spent $400 to send both (twins) to 2 driving schools. One held by the local Sherriff was pretty basic but a good starter on car control and dealing with police officers as they ran the school. Then they went to a full day class in N Atlanta on a racetrack, with the cars supplied by BMW. They learned evasive maneuvers, high speed braking, skid control on a wet skid pad and generally built a lot of confidence behind the wheel. Feeling better about their skills, we looked for cars. My son was adamant he wanted a manual, Halleluiah! Looking at used Civics and Golf's and concerned about reliability and safety, I got discouraged. Then noticed an AutoTrader adv. for a new leftover '16 Ford Focus ST six-speed. 25k MSRP advertised for $17,500. $2500 above my self-imposed limit. I went to look, a brand new car, 16 miles on it, black with just the sunroof. 3 year warranty and ABS, Airbags. One drive and the torquey turbo 2.0 convinced me and I bought it on the spot. 7 years and 66k miles later it still serves my son well with zero issues. My daughter was set on a Subaru, I easily found a year old Crosstrek with all the safety gear and only 3k miles. 21k but gave my wife and I lots of peace of mind. She still wheels the Subaru, loves it and it too has provided 7 years and 58k miles of low cost motoring. Buy what fits your budget but keep in mind total cost over the long haul and the peace of mind a reliable and safe car provides. Your kids are worth it.
  • Irvingklaws Here's something cheaper, non-german, and more intriguing...
  • Wjtinfwb Happy you're loving your Z4. Variety is the spice of life and an off-beat car like the Z4 intrigues me as well. More than anything, your article and pictures have me lusting for the dashboards of a decade ago. Big, round analog gauges. Knobs and buttons to dial up the A/C, Heat or Volume. Not a television screen in sight. Need to back up? Use the mirrors or look over your shoulder. If your Z4 had the six-speed manual, it would be about perfect. Today's electronified BMW's leave me ice cold, as do the new Mercedes and Audi's with their video game interiors. Even a lowly GTI cannot escape the glowing LED dashboard. I'm not a total luddite, Bluetooth streaming for the radio would be nice and I'd agree the cooled seats would be a bonus on a warm day with the top down. But the Atari dashboard is just a bridge too far for me.