Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has been busy this week denying what he won't do and sharing what he wants to do. And everything he has said has implications for the company, its brands and consumers on four continents.
Of most immediate importance, Marchionne was compelled to inject himself into the U.S. presidential campaign this week after a Romney TV commercial and radio spot in battleground Ohio highlighted his plan to build Jeeps in China.
It could be inferred from the Republican nominee's spot that Jeep jobs might leave Ohio and Michigan in such an endeavor — a suggestion that Marchionne swiftly rejected. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also said in a statement released by Romney's campaign: "GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas. These are facts that voters deserve to know as they listen to the claims President Obama and his campaign are making."
An irked Marchionne released a statement to assure Chrysler employees and the public that the company's commitment to U.S. production of Jeeps, which has been expanding lately, was secure, stating "I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China." GM also refuted the Romney campaign claims.
The Romney ad (released Oct. 28, at top) the automakers rushed in to fact-check stated: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job." The Republic nominee also said on Oct. 25 that he had read in a Bloomberg news story that day that Jeep "is thinking of moving all production to China." That Oct. 22 Bloomberg story reported that Chrysler, owned by Italian automaker Fiat SpA, is thinking of building Jeeps in China for sale in the Chinese market.
The Romney campaign piled on in an Oct. 30 blog post penned by Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich, the former Chairman and President of the Chrysler Corporation, respectively. The Chrysler veterans stated, in part:
We know what kind of bold leadership it takes to turn around a troubled company. We know because we did it back in the early 1980s at Chrysler. And in our opinion, Mitt Romney is the leader we need to help turn our economy around and ensure that the American auto industry is once again a dominant force in the world. Unfortunately, in the absence of a record or a plan to restore the strength of our nation’s economy, President Obama has resorted to misleading attacks about Romney’s commitment to the automotive industry. But if there’s anyone who wants to see American car companies thrive and succeed, it’s Mitt Romney.
Marchionne was also compelled to deny reports that Fiat had approached PSA/Peugeot-Citroen and GM about forming a super-company that could rival Volkswagen in Europe, relying on the two native companies and GM's Opel division. That report on Bloomberg, Marchionne told Automotive News Europe, was "bizarre."
What Marchionne does intend to do, according to a plan he unveiled this week, is a radical overhaul of Fiat to try to make it a survivor of the cataclysmic, ongoing recession in the European auto market.
In Milan this week, at Fiat headquarters, he outlined an ambitious plan that would base all new Fiat models on the auto maker's premium-priced 500 supermini and fuel-efficient Panda city car in an export-driven strategy that would take advantage of increasingly idle Italian manufacturing capacity. For larger and pricier cars sold under the Lancia brand, Marchionne said, his company might rely on some Chrysler models.
That means Fiat plans to build and export pricey models from Italy to South America and North America, including, yes, perhaps Jeeps built in Europe for export back to the United States. Romney's ad apparently didn't have time to address that part of Fiat's plan.