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Searching for Sergio

I don't usually cover automaker CEOs. That's Phil Lebeau's job. But last night in La-la land, Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne was in town for the Los Angeles Auto Show. This turnaround specialist is credited with successfully guiding Chrysler out of bankruptcy and is hoping to take the company public. It seemed natural to seek his views on the eve of GM's massive IPO.

First I had to find him.

I was warned that Marchionne doesn't "do" interviews in the traditional sense. You have to ambush him, but he always knows you're coming. So me and my crew stood guard on the red carpet outside the brand new Motor Village of Los Angeles to await his arrival.

We waited.

And waited.

Sergio Marchionne
Getty Images
Sergio Marchionne

About an hour later, when no one still seemed to know where the CEO was, I got word he'd snuck in the back. Well, "snuck" might not be the right word. But he did not come in the front. Where I was waiting.

Well, Signor Marchionne, this is Hollywood. I've chased down O.J. Simpson and Charlie Sheen and Zsa Zsa Gabor and Snoop Dogg and, well, you get the picture. How hard could it be to find a CEO in a three story building?

Harder than I thought.

We started scouring every floor, snaking our way through crowds enjoying champagne and appetizers (we were hungry, but I was on a mission). I talked to local security, Chrysler security, and then Marchionne's personal Italian security (stylishing dressed with a two day stubble and sipping red wine).

Everyone was as nice as could be, but no one seemed to know where the boss was! "It's like Waldo," said one person.

"We need to find a solution, permanent solution, to the capital structure of Chrysler. As much as we’ve relied and still need the United States Government to support us, we need to replace their role at Chrysler."" -CEO, Chrysler/Fiat, Sergio Marchionne

"You know I'm starting to hate you," said my beloved camerawoman as we wandered aimlessly.

Finally, I found him on the roof. Surrounded by Italian reporters. I will admit I was the last to know.

Worth it? Absolutely.

"I think we're out of the doghouse, that's the best way to describe it," Marchionne told me of Chrysler's turnaround. "I think we’ve turned a corner on product." He says by the time the Detroit Auto Show rolls around in January, 75 percent of the company's product line will have been overhauled.

As for refinancing debt and going public next year: "We need to find a solution, permanent solution, to the capital structure of Chrysler. As much as we’ve relied and still need the United States Government to support us, we need to replace their role at Chrysler, and hopefully on a more permanent basis within the next twelve months. So the solution is a combination of IPO and financing deals." He says the company has "a whole pot of options" as investor sentiment of the sector improves.

The New GM
The New GM

On GM's IPO: "The way in which the GM IPO is performing so far, and we'll see (Wednesday), both in terms of size and pricing is very comforting, and they’ll open up the road to us in terms of getting us into the market."

His longest answer was about the struggle to restore reputations post-bankruptcy: "Reputations are earned in the marketplace at the end of the day. There’s no magic. I think we need to continue to work more diligently and regain the consumer confidence that we lost. The ultimate test of the value of what we've done is going to be consumer acceptance. And all of the work we've done here and I would suspect all the work that General Motors has done has done, has been clearly directed to the consumer. We owe them a lot more then probably people think we do. The disappointment has been with them, and that's the thing that hurts us most."

Mission accomplished.

Where's that security guy with the red wine...I could use a sip...

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