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Chrysler's Marchionne: ‘We Have to Earn the Right to Compete’

Sergio Marchionne
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Sergio Marchionne

Sergio Marchionne has heard the comments. He knows there are plenty of people who have written off Chrysler. He knows there are scores of reporters who take the lack of auto show press conferences as a sign the company is dead in the water. He also knows Chrysler can no longer afford to make big promises it can't keep.

"Threatening to deliver success is not success," Marchionne told me during a one hour conversation with a handful of reporters attending the Detroit Auto Show. He added, "We're beginning the process of earning the right to compete."

Chrysler has not been competitive.

The Detroit Auto Show 2010
The Detroit Auto Show 2010

In fact, it was so close to shutting down last spring, some in the Obama White House wanted to pull the plug. Instead, they threw out a lifeline and sold it during bankruptcy to Fiat. Looking back, you could argue Marchionne overpaid for a bucket of bolts. Chrysler's product pipeline was so dry; people inside the company would snicker when you brought up the topic of future models.

No wonder Chrysler sales plunged 35% last year and it's market share dropped to 8.9%. Marchionne has old products that are tough to move, especially with Americans who have heard nothing good about Chrysler in 3 or 4 years. "We do have a credibility issue. We know that," says Marchionne.

Which brings up why the CEO is saying little, and showing even less at this years auto show. Marchionne is of the belief his company should reveal new models close to when those models roll into showrooms. So when the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is shown in the second quarter it will be just a few months before it rolls into showrooms. Marchionne says, "We're not that far away from showing our product line-up."

And what about those in Detroit who want the charismatic Italian to be the next Lee Iacocca? At least in terms of style, Marchionne isn't buying it, saying, "I'm not Lee. You've got to know who you are when you wake up in the morning."

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