Even for an auto executive, Mike Manley has strong views about how a car should look and feel.
Around 2009, the car was a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the first big product launch since Chrysler had been cast off by Daimler after their ill-fated merger. Manley, who had been in charge of product planning, took a test vehicle to the company’s proving grounds near Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Jim Press, then co-president of Chrysler, and a couple of engineers.
“We all felt really pretty good about the car; it’s got everything we wanted,” Press recalled. “Mike drove it and said, ‘Nope, the steering wheel’s not big enough; it doesn’t feel like a Jeep.’ ”
A decade later, Jeep has been revitalized in the U.S. and expanded into a global powerhouse. It’s the key sales driver for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, as well as the linchpin in the company’s plan to double profits in the next five years. And Manley, a 54-year-old Briton, has been picked by Chairman John Elkann, the scion of Fiat’s founding family, to replace Sergio Marchionne, who died Wednesday after succumbing to complications from recent surgery.
Running a car company requires not just the instincts of a salesman but also the deft touch of a politician. So when Manley makes his debut appearance as chief executive officer on the company’s earnings call Wednesday, he will have to show Wall Street that he is more than just a prolific seller of Jeeps and Ram pickups.
“We have only seen the operational side of Manley,” said Philippe Houchois, an analyst at Jefferies Group in London who has been covering the company for 17 years. “We haven’t seen his ability to take it to a higher level. The job of CEO is quite political and complex.”
That means navigating through numerous minefields: President Donald Trump’s trade policy, doubts in Italy about whether the first non-Italian CEO can run the 119-year-old company and the existential questions over whether Fiat Chrysler needs a partner to help with investments in electrification and survive technological disruption from autonomous vehicles.
Manley has been on the list to replace Marchionne for years. At the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Marchionne said he was “squeezing out’’ his potential successors, and the “poor bastard” who survived would become CEO after his departure.
Asked then if he was ready to take over the legacy of Marchionne, who ran Fiat Chrysler for 14 years and engineered the transatlantic merger that saved both companies, Manley replied: “Sergio says that every day you own your right to live, which means we live in a tough environment, but it’s an environment I’ve very much benefited from.’’
Manley is expected to share the burden of replacing Marchionne with Chief Financial Officer Richard Palmer, who had been Marchionne’s alter ego with investors. After Europe chief Alfredo Altavilla abruptly resigned following the carmaker’s decision to pick Manley, more powers were assigned to Palmer, including mergers and acquisitions.
Marchionne, who defied skeptics by repeatedly setting and meeting audacious profit targets, is almost worshiped on Wall Street for increasing shareholder value by more than 10-fold. On the last earnings call, one analyst begged him to remain in the job past his planned retirement date of April 2019. Another declared on the eve of his final five-year strategy presentation in June that Fiat Chrysler “is not a company: It’s the man.”
But Marchionne made a point of having his executives wear multiple hats to break down silos and help groom them for bigger responsibilities. Manley has worn quite a few.
14 years in dealerships
Born in 1964 in Edenbridge, England, a small town about an hour and a half’s drive south of London, he graduated from London South Bank University in 1985 with a degree in engineering and later earned a master’s in business administration from Ashridge Management College. He spent 14 years working in car dealerships before being hired to run DaimlerChrysler’s UK dealer network in 2000.