Sergio Marchionne has been Fiat Group’s CEO since 2004. By the time he became the Amministratore Delegato, Fiat was facing very tough times due to an internal crisis that began some years before. Sales figures of all group’s brands were struggling with problems in Italy and all over Europe, as they were trying to solve the divorce with GM. Marchionne found a company full of bureaucracy and with several problems. By the end of that year Fiat Auto sold 20.539 million euros and lost 840 million euros*. It was another bad year for the Italians who were suffering the consequences of very bad decisions taken some years before, during the 90’s when the whole group failed with lot of products all over Europe. No matter the success of the 2 first generations of the Punto, and the arrival of the new Panda, in 2004 the situation was really dramatic and one of main reasons were quality and after-sales problems. The last years of the 90’s were not really good years to remember. Fiat was introducing a lot of models but forgot that good quality was emerging as one of key factors taken into account by consumers. Eventhough they had unique designs, cars like the Fiat Bravo/Brava, and Marea, Lancia Dedra, Kappa, and Thesis, or the Alfa 166, lacked of good quality and they were made with very low cost materials. Besides, the 3 brands were not quite well represented in several countries of Europe, something that affected the quality of after sale service. Those bad decisions in terms of the quality of the product had a big effect on Fiat’s position in Europe explained by the fact that the Italians were Europe’s largest car maker by sales figures in the 80’s and by the end of the 90’s its market share was dropping significantly. Fiat was no longer the leader.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Marchionne meant a big change on Fiat’s understanding of making and selling cars. By focusing on the launch of fresh models with better quality and calling off the agreement with General Motors, Fiat experienced a period of recovery and a better position in Italy and abroad. The first product to prove it was the Grande Punto, launched in 2005 as the third generation of the successfull B-Segment model. They offered a new car with great engines and soon the company realized the importance of efficient and low emission engines. In 2006 Fiat had the largest sales increase in Europe with 18%, above VW Group, the French and Americans, in a whole market that grew only 0.7%**. Certainly the new Punto played a key role on this result (its registrations were up 22%). Eventhough the quality was not still a main characteristic of the group’s products (the Alfa 159 launched in 2005 is a good example), consumers appreciated the new products. But Marchionne did not stop, he wanted more and he wanted to impress the market. That is why in July 2007 Fiat presented what can be considered its best product of the last 3 decades, the new Fiat 500. And they certainly hit the market with a unique car and all-new marketing strategies. In 2007 Fiat Auto (Fiat + Alfa + Lancia) sold 1.847.714 vehicles world wide from which almost 800 thousand were delivered in Italy***. One year later they sold the same amount, but in 2009 Fiat Auto sold 2 million cars , up 9%, thanks to a record year in Germany (Government support to car industry) and Brazil. By that year two events took place and changed Fiat history: the begining of international financial crisis and Chrysler bankruptcy.
What was considered as crazy move by most of specialized press, resulted in Marchionne’s best play. As is usual on him, he saw what most of people could not see. He anticipated European automotive crisis and therefore he decided to purchase Chrysler no matter the bad future it had by that time. Fiat needed a partner to expand its business and ensure its future. Marchionne knew this partner was going to be essential for the coming years. And he was right. 3 years later is not Fiat saving Chrysler but the opposite. And of course the ‘miracle’ experienced by Chrysler is the result of very good decisions made by Sergio Marchionne and his team. The recovery of the Pentastar was another goal of the Italo-Canadian manager. In 2009 he saw that Europe was in the way of collapse in terms of car sales, and that’s why he bought Chrysler so Fiat could survive. After that the story is well known by everyone. The Chrysler/Dodge products arrived in Europe as Fiat/Lancias, with very low sales objectives as the conditions of the market were getting really bad. The rebadged Chrysler 300 and Voyager was a really controversial decision but at the end is part of a mid-term strategy to give Lancia some oxygen for the coming years. At the end Lancia and Chrysler will develop their models and adapt them to their markets. If it was or not a good decision does not really matter as these models (Lancia Thema, Voyager and Flavia) are not expected to have brilliant sales figures (original sales forecast for the first year of both, Thema and Voyager, were 10.000 units each, but Jan-May/12 sales figure indicates only 800 cars were sold so far).
But the European automotive crisis is being worse than expected and all problems behind it are daily news. Most of all European markets drops with significant falls in what used to be one of world’s largest markets: Italy, Spain and France. The fact that car registrations fall up to 2 digits every month and the trend does not change, has turned on the alarm of all automotive CEOs. Europe is not anymore the big and healthy market of more than 15 million cars per year. Those years could be considered not only the good past but also the unreal one, as it seems car sales figures were extremely high and contaminated by government helps. Europe will keep buying cars but much less. The problem is that all car makers built their European future based on the best years and therefore they increased their production capacity with more and more plants and employes. Of course, with current conditions it is not feasible to keep the statu-quo. Things must be changed in order to face the coming years. First it came the disparition of Saab and then the big problems of the big of Europe: Fiat closed its factory in Sicily in december/10, and now PSA is fighting with French government to fire 8000 employes and close one of its French plants. The same is happening to Ford and Opel. VW sees how its best sellers Golf and Polo decline their registrations. All these problems are the consequence of a market that does not buy as before because of an economic crisis that affects all.
In this context Fiat’s position is not the best. It depends a lot of Italian market, one of region’s most affected. Besides, there is the debate about Italian competitiveness and labor conditions. Fiat is having aditional problems with its labor force in Italy and this is making it more exposed to the crisis. They are losing money with Italy as their plants located world wide are more competitive and generate more cash. But again is something well known by everyone. The point is the way Sergio Marchionne wants to get out of the crisis. Certainly his decisions cause always controversy. People may agree or disagree but at the end most of them recognized he is perhaps Fiat’s main ‘asset’. His capacity of work and the way he anticipates the future are without any doubt a great tool for Fiat-Chrysler group. Now, after 8 years managing the company, he must take the hardest decisions ever. And is when more controversy appears. He wants to reduce Fiat’s dependance on Europe by increasing Fiat-Chrysler presence in Asia. He wants to find a partner to become more global. He wants to increase Fiat’s capacity in Brazil. And Europe? in Europe he wants to wait. He believes the worst has not occurred and he prefers to delay the launch of several new models. Why? he believes doing the opposite would mean a suicide with current conditions. It means that a key model such as the old Punto will have to wait for its successor. It means Fiat’s decision to surpass the crisis is by doing and expending less. But is it a right decision?
Fortunatelly just before the crisis began, the new generation of Fiat Panda was almost ready. It allowed the best seller to ensure its future with a modern successor. But things do not work like that for the rest of the range and becomes dramatic when taking into account that Marchionne’s decision of delaying new launches includes the successful and vital Punto. Yes, he might not consider the fact that the B-Segment car has been Fiat’s main product for the last 19 years. The same situation applies for the other segments: in the C-Segment the Bravo will have to wait until late 2013 for a successor that will come from China, the Giulietta won’t have the expected Station Wagon version until 2014, while the Delta will be in the catalogue for at least 2 or 3 more years. Alfa will wait till 2014 to see the new Giulia for D-Segment while the MiTo won’t have a 5 door version till the same year. The SUV expected for Alfa Romeo has not even a date of presentation. The only progress to be seen in the horizon is the 500 family that will be enlarged by the arrival of the 500L by September 2012, and then in 2013 the presentation of the 500X (the small SUV). It is my believe that Fiat can delay all future launches of its cars but should not jeopardize the future of the Punto. Marchionne must have very solid reasons to put off the new generation and he constantly says that starting production of the new generation with current market conditions would be flop. And of course car companies as all others exist to earn money. If his financial and market forecasts tell him it is not the right time to launch the new Punto, then he is right. Yes, nowadays Europeans don’t buy cars as before and it seems it will be like this for 2 or 3 more years. But there is something wrong in all this. Or at least is what I think.
Fiat is not VW. It means it does not have the financial strenght to allow itself to mistake. VW can have problems with its gear box in China but its excellent position in the market allows it to answer to this problem in a short time offering the best solution. Fiat-Chrysler does not have the right to do wrong as it has had lot of problems in recent past. And is this particular topic in which I consider Marchionne is repeating the history. Fiat did wrong in the 90’s with quality problems and still suffers the consequences of bad image in the whole continent (Italy included). They realized how important is to do the right things. Now, for the first time, I disagree with Mr. Marchionne and I believe they are making a mistake as big as the one of the 90’s: they abandon current clients and tell them to move to other car makers as Fiat products don’t change. As simple as that. Yes, Fiat is saving money or at least not losing it by investing in the development of new cars. And yes, it does not make sense to invest in new C or D-Segment cars when the position of the company is not really strong in those segments. But the situation changes when talking about small car segments, Fiat’s core business. What is more risky? to invest in the launch of new Punto and the sequent low sales proper of current situation, or to lose the current Punto clients and then have less market share in this important segment? people may be delaying their decision of changing their car, but at the end every month there are almost 1 million Europeans doing so. The market is smaller but it exists, and Fiat should think about it. Or why Peugeot just launched the 208? Or Renault presented the awesome new Clio? they have the same problems of Fiat, but eventhough they continue. At the end the only beneficiary of this decision will be VW and Koreans who will increase even more their market share. If Fiat wants to sell more they must offer more. The 500L is a product that can work but is not enough. The MiTo and Ypsilon are not competitive and do not offer anything new. Dealers can not wait more for new products. European autoshows can not continue being the scenario for lack of new products. Alfa Romeo can not resist anymore with only 2 models. Fiat-Chrysler should act according to how the market evolves. They should forecast not only sales but also the production and future development costs. Just time will demostrate how right is Marchionne’s decision. But time will also prove how difficult will it be for Fiat to regain the lost clients, who will be surely inloved with their VW Polo, Peugeot 208 or Renault Clio.
* DATI PRELIMINARI DELL’ESERCIZIO 2004 E RISULTATI DEL QUARTO TRIMESTRE FIAT Spa
** Fiat sales boost leads Europe in 2006. Fiat News New Zealand