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Marchionne, products wow Chrysler dealers

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Marchionne, products wow Chrysler dealers

Company shows reborn Viper, drops hint of Jeep pickup

Bradford Wernle

Automotive News -- September 20, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

For 16 months, Chrysler Group dealers waited for face time with CEO Sergio Marchionne. When it finally happened last week, many said Marchionne -- quoting Dickens and Einstein and calling passionately for a Chrysler rebirth -- gave them confidence in their company and its leader.

Speaking to dealers as "chief executive to chief executive, because that is what you are," he called for a healing process within the company and said Chrysler must regenerate its tarnished greatness and reconnect to "the heart of the market."

Marchionne, who took control of Chrysler in mid-2009, spoke to a crowd of about 4,000, made up of dealers and their associates, at Chrysler's National Dealer Announcement Show in Orlando.

Reaction was enthusiastic -- in part because Marchionne and his brand bosses unveiled some tantalizing new products, such as a mid-sized sedan called the Chrysler 200, a reborn Dodge Viper and a possible Jeep pickup.

In a speech that was by turns solemn, philosophical and hilarious, he called on dealers to rally behind his team and the 17 vehicles Chrysler showed them.

He said Chrysler is financially healthy and is on track to post a $5 billion operating profit on sales of 2.8 million units by 2014. Last year, Chrysler sold 1.3 million units worldwide.

He acknowledged that many had waited a long time to hear news from the company. The last dealer announcement show, for example, was in Las Vegas in 2007, when Chrysler was owned by Cerberus Capital Management.

"We have traveled 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," Marchionne said.

He called for a healing process with dealers, many of whom had been bruised by the financial crisis of 2009 and the company's rejection of 789 of their colleagues via bankruptcy.

"We know that the healing process 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," he said.

A mystery no more

Chrysler still has much to prove as it rebuilds its product pipeline, brand positioning and marketing. But all that was in the background as dealers listened in rapt attention to a man who had been a mystery to them.

Said David Kelleher, owner of David Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep in Glen Mills, Pa.: "Talk is cheap. Marchionne waited amid much criticism to address us. In doing so he took a lot of heat.

" At the end of the day he proved it to us by giving us the products first."

The speech contained many references to intellectuals whom car dealers aren't used to hearing: Einstein, Dickens, Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.

Marchionne held the crowd, even though the speech followed seven hours of presentations from other Chrysler executives, dealers said.

"Imagine 4,000 people of varying degrees of intellect and they're glued to him. He kept them riveted -- ri-vet-ed," said Kelleher, who is also a member of the Chrysler National Dealer Council.

Don Lee, president of Lee Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in Auburn, Maine, had wondered before the meeting whether Marchionne would ever address dealers. He, too, came away impressed.

"Sixteen months is a long time to go without speaking directly to the dealers, particularly a new company," Lee said. "We were left with the feeling that perhaps they don't recognize how important the dealers are or perhaps they don't have anything positive to say.

"Listening to him from beginning to end left me with much more confidence about the long-term health of this company, much more confidence than I've had since prior to Daimler taking over."

Not here to teach

Many dealers have been wary that Fiat would follow the Daimler model by assuming a dominant role at Chrysler in what was supposed to be a merger of equals. Marchionne sought to allay concerns.

"Fiat did not come to the United States of America with the presumption of being a teacher. What Fiat is doing is making its technology available to Chrysler so that we can construct an industrial future together," he said.

Marchionne said the days of Fiat's "Fix it again, Tony" reputation are long gone.

"We are a large automotive concern with sales of nearly $65 billion operating in 190 countries with more than 190,000 employees, more than 240,000 if we include Chrysler."

As he set the stage for a few financial details about Chrysler, Marchionne brought down the house with laughter when he said: "When I present figures like these, I am quite conscious of President Lyndon Johnson's admonition: 'Did you ever think making a speech about economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.'"

He said Chrysler would consider an initial public offering if the company continues its current performance and "market conditions are favorable."

Said dealer Lee: "I think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish with the dealers charged up about the product and the long-term health of the company. And they've got a guy in charge with a plan and a track record for execution. That means a lot from a dealer's perspective in terms of what kind of investment they want to make in this company."

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100920/OEM01/309209958/1178#ixzz105u1TrhC

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