Sergio Marchionne marks 10 years as Fiat CEO

Ten years ago, a somber Sergio Marchionne stood in front of a crowded Turin press conference in a formal suit and dark tie to say that he would work hard to pull Fiat SpA back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Brought in by the controlling family hours after chairman Umberto Agnelli had passed away, the chief executive officer faced losses at the automaker that had ballooned to more than 6 billion euros (US$8.2-billion) from 2001 to 2003.

After returning the automaker to profit and completing the acquisition of Chrysler Group LLC, Marchionne, 61, marked his first decade as CEO yesterday and is again at a turning point, with some investors skeptical over his plan to boost sales 61 percent to 7 million cars in 2018. To do so, Marchionne will have to prove that not only is he a talented dealmaker, he also knows how to build cars that will resonate with consumers.

“The turnaround maestro, who saved Fiat and Chrysler helped by his financial skills, must now show, by making the right products, that he’s a ‘car guy’ too,” said Giuseppe Berta, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan who knows Marchionne personally.

Since taking over on June 1, 2004, Marchionne has tripled revenue, operating profit and the share price. His goal now is to boost net income to about 5 billion euros in 2018 from the 904 million euros earned last year by selling more upscale vehicles, including new Alfa Romeo models built in Italy.

“I only have one objective: to bring that home,” Marchionne, who has long since ditched the formal suits for casual sweaters, said of the new strategic plan he announced in early May. “It’s that simple,” he said, adding that he’d celebrate his 10th anniversary as CEO by “working.”

The Italian CEO, who moved to Canada with his family when he was 14, is more recognized for the deals he sealed at Fiat, including a $2 billion check from General Motors Co. to exit a partnership in 2005, than for creating models. Helped by the GM deal, he managed to return Fiat to profit in 2005, his first full year as CEO.

The 500 subcompact is by far the most successful model introduction under Marchionne, with over 1.2 million sold since he brought back the iconic car in 2007. He’s also managed to boost the Maserati brand with the Quattroporte and Ghibli, which are helping the luxury brand more than double 2014 sales.

Thus far, he hasn’t succeeded in rejuvenating Alfa Romeo, with models such as the Brera hatchback and the 159 sedan failing to win over buyers. Marchionne is now pushing the reset button on the marque, a key part of his 2018 plan, by dumping all its autos except one and starting fresh. He’s also reducing the Lancia brand to a single vehicle to be sold only in Italy, ditching the Delta hatchback and Thema and Flavia sedans.

“The industry, I don’t think, thinks of Sergio as a car guy and clearly he has had success as a turnaround leader,” said Jeff Schuster, an auto analyst with LMC Automotive in Troy, Mich. “That’s his forte: he’s a fixer. But I think he’s also maybe a closet car guy.”

By investing 55 billion through 2018, Marchionne’s goal is to boost sales and profit with more upscales models from Alfa Romeo and Jeep that will be sold globally. Fiat will invest 5 billion euros alone to build eight new Alfa Romeos in Italy as part of a strategy to boost the brand’s sales to 400,000 in 2018 from about 73,000 last year.

Thus far, investors have been skeptical about his ability to increase profit fivefold while also reducing Fiat’s debt, which he forecasts will peak at 11 billion euros in 2015, and then decline to about 1 billion euros in 2018. At least five analysts cut their Fiat recommendation after Marchionne presented the plan May 6 at Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., over doubt he can reach the 7 million sales target. The shares are down about 10 percent since then.

“Fiat simply looks overvalued as it has an incredibly stretched balance sheet, is embarking on massive investments and will not generate any cash, even on management’s bullish assumptions,” Max Warburton, a Singapore-based analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein who cut his recommendation on the shares to underperform, said in a note to clients on May 29. “We think Fiat will miss its guidance for 2014.”

Marchionne has dismissed arguments that he’s not deeply involved in the models the automaker builds and said last week it will take time “for opinions to change” that his targets are achievable.

“We are working our asses off for it,” he said. “Let me go work and I’ll try to make the guidance.”

Kristina Church, a Barclays Plc analyst in London, expects Fiat to miss the 2018 targets, which include 132 billion euros in revenue and from 8.7 billion euros to 9.8 billion euros in operating profit, by about 20 per cent and fall short of the deliveries goal by more than 1.5 million cars.

“It’s going to be very very difficult for Marchionne to meet his targets,” Church said. “Still, we think investors overreacted to the plan presentation as Fiat is going in the right direction with Marchionne fighting for his plan.”

About Bloomberg