Highlights of the year’s major events at Chrysler:
• Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne starts the year by stirring the pot at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Marchionne, also Fiat’s CEO, says Chrysler could assume some of the Italian auto maker’s production if Fiat workers reject a concessionary contract. The deal is approved days later.
He also arouses media interest by revealing Chrysler is contemplating a revival of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer nameplate for 2013.
Months later, Marchionne again deviates from Chrysler’s discreet approach to future-product discussions by saying the auto maker’s next-generation minivan platform will accommodate all-wheel drive and, perhaps, a “lifestyle truck” to succeed the Ram Dakota small pickup.
• After Chrysler reports a fourth-quarter 2010 operating profit of $198 million for a favorable swing of $239 million, the auto maker announces plans to deliver a “performance reward” for its nearly 30,000 unionized workers – a turnaround, though largely symbolic, from the austerity measures imposed during its 2009 bankruptcy.
• Laura Soave, top North America executive for the Fiat brand, says Chrysler dealers chosen to sell the Fiat 500 minicar are the network’s leading contenders to distribute Alfa Romeo vehicles when the brand returns to North America.
• Chrysler makes television history with the longest commercial ever aired during a Super Bowl broadcast. The 2-minute spot, titled “Born of Fire,” features rapper and Detroit native Eminem, a gospel choir, dramatic images of the Motor City and the tagline “Imported From Detroit.” The inspiring commercial, which wins an Emmy months later, captures headlines and is featured on network news shows. Kelley Blue Book reports a 213% jump in interest in the Chrysler brand, based on the consumer publication’s website traffic.
• Consumer Reports admits the data it used to give Chrysler vehicles a failing grade on its 2011 “report card” contains significant gaps. The publication had no data for 16 ’10 Chrysler vehicles and 10 ’09 products.
• Fiat heralds spring’s arrival by boosting its stake in Chrysler to 30% from 25%. By year’s end, Fiat becomes majority owner after refinancing its debt to repay the U.S. Treasury $5.1 billion in taxpayer-funded loans – plus $2 billion interest – six years ahead of schedule, and buying out the Treasury and Canadian government’s remaining stakes.
The Italian auto maker pays $625 million for the Treasury’s 6% stake, or 98,000 Chrysler shares, in addition to $75 million for the government’s option rights to the United Auto Workers’ Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Assn. In addition, Fiat pays $1.3 billion to the Treasury for its equity-call option.
• Chrysler joins the electric-vehicle surge in May by launching a test fleet of plug-in hybrid Ram trucks. The 140 fullsize crew-cab pickups are the first series-production vehicles with reverse power-flow capability to come from a major auto maker.
• A key focus of the project, financed by a $48 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, is to explore how the power grid might be supplemented by energy stored in electric-vehicle batteries.
• In Chrysler’s first post-bankruptcy earnings call to disclose year-over-year financial performance, CEO Sergio Marchionne says Fiat platforms will account for 56% of the auto maker’s worldwide car volume by 2014. The transition is set to begin with a Dodge-brand C-car boasting 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km).
Bridging the product waves, Marchionne says, are plans for special-edition vehicles such as a Dodge Charger Superbee and a Gucci-styled Fiat 500 A-car. Chrysler’s first-quarter net income of $116 million is a positive swing of $313 million, compared with like-2010.
The auto maker previously had declined to make such comparisons, saying 2009’s Chapter 11 filing rendered irrelevant an association with 2010 results. Chrysler’s first-quarter performance is backed by worldwide sales of 394,000 vehicles, an 18% jump from prior-year.
“Born of Fire” Super Bowl commercial groundbreaking.
• For the first time in more than five years, Chrysler’s U.S. monthly sales top that of industry giant Toyota. Chrysler records 114,860 deliveries in May, an 18.9% boost from like-2010, compared with Toyota’s 108,387 – a 27.9% plunge.
For the year, Chrysler records several all-time sales milestones. Among them, the Dodge Avenger midsize sedan passes the 400,000-unit mark in March, the Chrysler 300 hits 900,000 in May, the Jeep Patriot small cross/utility vehicle notches 200,000 in August and the Dodge Charger eclipses 800,000 in September.
• At a June conference of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers, Sig Huber, Chrysler senior director-supplier relations, previews new supplier-performance guidelines developed to support the auto maker’s expected sales growth in 2012.
• Chrysler projects 2.4 million new-vehicle deliveries worldwide in 2012, up 200,000 from its 2011 forecast. Huber says supplier performance would be based on delivery, quality, cost, warranty and partnership.
• Chrysler re-establishes a design presence in California after a 3-year absence from the trendsetting state. Ralph Gilles, senior vice president-product design, describes the site as a “satellite,” not a studio. Its purpose is to draw inspiration from California’s car culture. “It’s kind of an antenna,” he says.
• In June, some 12 months after exiting bankruptcy, Chrysler restructures its organization in a move that elevates its high-performance SRT trim level to full brand status, with Ralph Gilles at the helm.
Gilles maintains his spot as design chief, but gives up his role as Dodge brand president and CEO to Reid Bigland. Bigland retains his role as president and CEO of Chrysler Canada, while also inheriting from Fred Diaz the job as U.S. sales boss. Diaz, Ram President and CEO, assumes responsibility for Chrysler’s operations in Mexico and Latin America.
• By year’s end, CEO Sergio Marchionne is elevated to chairman with the resignation of C. Robert Kidder. Marchionne also retains leadership of Fiat, as president and CEO.
One month after fine-tuning Chrysler’s organizational structure, Sergio Marchionne moves to integrate the auto maker more closely with Fiat.
He establishes a “group executive council” with himself as CEO. Jeep-brand president and CEO Mike Manley is given responsibility for Fiat in Asia.
Chrysler-brand boss Olivier Francois is appointed global head of the Fiat brand. And in recognition of his supervision of the auto maker’s successful Super Bowl ad campaign, Francois also is named chief creative officer. Saad Chehab is tapped to lead the Chrysler and Lancia brands.
• Canada-based Toronto Dominion Bank forms TD Auto Finance to replace Chrysler Financial, which it acquired from the auto maker’s pre-bankruptcy owner, Cerberus Capital Management.
• With the production launch of the ’12 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, Chrysler becomes the first North American auto maker to introduce an 8-speed automatic transmission.
• In the wake of contentious negotiations that result in a new contract with the United Auto Workers union, Sergio Marchionne declares the deal’s 2-tier wage structure is unsustainable. “It creates two classes of workers within the plant,” he says.
The cost-saving system allows Detroit auto makers to pay entry-level hourly employees substantially less than veteran line workers. Production workers ratify the 4-year contract, reached weeks after General Motors and Ford had settled with the union. Skilled-trades workers unit reject the deal, but they are overruled.
• Chrysler raises its profit target for 2011 on the heels of positive third-quarter results. The auto maker says it expected net income for the year to come in at $600 million, up from the originally forecasted $500 million. However, CEO Sergio Marchionne says an initial public offering of Chrysler stock is unlikely until after 2012.