Is it possible that Chrysler is finally getting its “merger of equals,” nearly exactly 15 years after the disastrous deal that created DaimlerChrysler?
There’s reason for optimism, courtesy of Sergio Marchionne, Maserati and Saad Chehab, a Detroiter who’s about to step onto the auto industry’s global stage.
Chehab, a University of Detroit Mercy educated architect who was born in Lebanon and came to Detroit with his family as a teenager, last week was moved from running the Chrysler and Lancia brands to global marketing chief of Maserati. That’s a key new position at the Italian luxury brand that Fiat expects to produce major sales and profit growth over the next few years.
Executives from Chrysler didn’t get opportunities like that under Daimler, but Marchionne’s developing a promising track record.
“He’s trying to create a true partnership, a truly integrated corporation,” said professor Robert Wiseman, chairman of the department of management at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. “Marchionne is trying to instill a culture that recognizes and rewards achievement.”
DaimlerChrysler claimed to be a merger of equals, but it quickly became evident that Chrysler’s brands and employees were second-class citizens, of whom much was expected but little appreciation or opportunity would be given.
“It was clear Daimler saw itself as the senior partner,” Wiseman said.
Marchionne, the perennially rumpled CEO of Fiat and Chrysler, has already provided Chrysler employees more opportunities than Daimler did during its lifetime from Nov. 12, 1998, to Aug. 3, 2007.
A former Chrysler executive runs Fiat’s worldwide purchasing operation. Dozens of Chrysler folks now have engineering, manufacturing and marketing jobs at Fiat in Europe and Asia.
Chrysler executive Peter Grady just became Maserati’s new U.S. CEO, a vital job as Maserati adds new models and seeks to grow from about 6,000 worldwide sales last year to 50,000 in 2015.
“It’s always been clear that Chrysler and Fiat are on an equal footing,” said Michelle Krebs a senior analyst with Edmunds.com who recently visited Maserati headquarters in Modena, Italy. “If you work for either company, you have a lot of professional options and opportunities for growth.”
It’s hard not to like Chehab’s career arc, or what it says about Marchionne’s plan to make Fiat-Chrysler an international meritocracy. Chehab started with Ford, overseeing its new showroom design. Marchionne met Chehab in Detroit, recruited him and has steadily thrown more responsibilities at him ever since.
Marchionne expects a lot from his executives. Some have left the company because they understandably don’t want to keep the same hours as the driven CEO. But when Marchionne finds someone who shares his appetite for seven-day workweeks and multiple job titles and responsibilities, the sky’s the limit.
“People want to feel that when they make contributions, they’ll be recognized and rewarded,” said Wiseman, who taught Chrysler executives in MBA classes at a MSU program in Troy. “I’ve seen a lot of Chrysler executives. They’re all very motivated.”
All of us who were optimistic when DaimlerChrysler formed know a lot can go wrong when automakers merge, though. Fiat-Chrysler faces unique challenges.
Fiat’s European home market is a mess. Its brand image is shaky. Chrysler has yet to develop a hit vehicle using Fiat drivetrains and vehicle architectures. Introducing the new models is taking longer than expected.
Marchionne’s result-driven management style may not survive his inevitable retirement. Today’s egalitarian atmosphere could change when Fiat gets full ownership of Chrysler.
Despite those potential pitfalls, it was clear last week that the new organization being born in Auburn Hills and Turin has the chance to be a different, better automaker than what went before.
Contact Mark Phelan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.