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Gilles sees innovation at Chrysler

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Gilles sees innovation at Chrysler

Bradford Wernle

Automotive News -- February 15, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

CHICAGO -- When Sergio Marchionne's overcrowded schedule forced Ralph Gilles to take the speaker's podium here, Gilles talked about what it's like to work for the CEO of Chrysler Group -- and a world-class workaholic.

Marchionne couldn't make his scheduled speaking appearance at the Economic Club of Chicago because he was in Russia signing an agreement for a joint venture.

Gilles told the Economic Club audience that Marchionne has driven his team hard but has reignited the spirit of innovation within Chrysler that lay dormant during the long, dark Daimler and Cerberus periods.

Gilles thinks Chrysler once more can exploit new product segments, as it did the minivan, the SUV and the three-row crossover.

"Sergio is by far the most impressive CEO I've ever worked with," said Gilles, who is CEO of the Dodge brand and Chrysler Group's chief designer. "I'm on my eighth CEO. This guy is special. He's the hardest-working man I've ever seen."

"It feels like Santa's workshop. People are working 24/7, but they're happy about it. It's impossible to put this much work and passion into something and not have it come to something. I liken Sergio to an orchestra conductor."

All the work is going into bringing a fleet of new vehicles and a wave of Fiat technology to Chrysler.

Gilles said his hero is Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Just as Apple forced competitors to follow innovative products such as the iPhone, Chrysler once led the market with vehicles such as its minivans, he said. Marchionne has brought that spirit back, Gilles said.

Chrysler wants to get away from designing me-too vehicles, Gilles said.

"Branded design is everything -- separating into four distinct brands," he said. "We've had too much overlap, too many products that were alike."

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