Mike Manley's path to the top took smarts, ambition and discipline

Manley has the advantage of experience working in dealerships and with retailers.

Before he became the guy running Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and before he was pushing Jeep to record sales, Mike Manley was the architect of the arch.

The arched main doorway is the dominant and instantly recognizable feature on the facade of almost every FCA dealership in the U.S. And the idea for that arch came from the now 54-year-old Manley during his early career with DaimlerChrysler, said Peter Grady, the retired head of FCA’s dealer network.

“He was the guy that came up with that. He brought that with him from Europe,” Grady said. But while other automakers regularly push dealership improvement programs on their retail networks, Grady said Manley’s arch was different. “He wanted a design that was timeless, something that would last 15 years or more.”

Manley’s history working in dealerships in the U.K. and later with FCA’s dealers gives him an advantage as he succeeds Sergio Marchionne as CEO of FCA.

Manley started his career in 1986 with Swan National Motors in Aberdeen, Scotland. He worked in various capacities and for different brands and dealerships across the U.K. for 14 years before being hired in 2000 by DaimlerChrysler as an operations director for Mercedes-Benz Direct. He soon was given a second role, as head of network development for DaimlerChrysler in the U.K.

Sean Nevatte, who worked with Manley at a Lex Vauxhall dealership in the mid-1990s, told Bloomberg that he remembered Manley as “extremely hands-on” and sometimes “fiery, but very controlled with it.”

“Everyone knew how ambitious he was,” Nevatte said.

Retired Chrysler sales chief Gary Dilts brought Manley to the states from the U.K. in 2003 for a brief interview and hired him almost immediately, Dilts told Automotive News from his home in Florida.

“Mike had a rare balance of retail smarts and financial smarts, and, most importantly, he knew how to keep his mouth shut when he didn’t have anything to say,” Dilts said last week after Manley’s promotion to CEO. “He’s ridden a couple of really strong horses in recent years, with Jeep and Ram, and he’s done well with them.”

Dilts said he also has great faith in “brilliant” CFO Richard Palmer and thinks “the two of them together will make it work. It’ll be bumpy for a while, no doubt, but they’ll make it work.”

One of Manley’s responsibilities at DaimlerChrysler was running a tiny international sales operation. It was in this job that Manley became a disciple of Jeep.

“When I took over international sales, we were selling three brands, with at the time something like 12 to 14 products in those brands in international markets, and we had less than 1 percent share anywhere outside the U.S.,” Manley told Automotive News in early 2016. He refocused the scattershot strategy, dumping Dodge from international sales to focus on Jeep.

When Chrysler came out of bankruptcy and Fiat took operational control in mid-2009, Marchionne tapped Manley for perhaps the most important task in the company: revitalizing Jeep, and later taking the brand global.

As part of a product revamp in 2010 and 2011, Jeep launched a redesigned Grand Cherokee with a new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 engine. Manley followed quickly with an overhaul of what he calls Jeep’s second halo vehicle, the Wrangler. His designers fixed the SUV’s interior shortcomings and replaced its underpowered engine with the Pentastar.

With Marchionne’s blessing, he also set about to fix mistakes: namely, Jeep’s badge-engineering exercises in the waning days of DaimlerChrysler that produced the original Jeep Compass and Patriot. The Patriot eventually was dropped, and the Compass was freshened and then redesigned to be sold in South America, Asia and Europe, as well as in Jeep’s most important market: the U.S.

Manley still believes Jeep — along with Ram, Alfa Romeo and Maserati — hold the financial keys to FCA’s future, as presented June 1 in FCA’s newest five-year plan. Manley repeated the goal that day that one in five SUVs sold worldwide should carry a Jeep badge.

Now that he holds FCA’s top job, Manley will need each of those brands to execute flawlessly if he is to meet the commitments laid out in FCA’s 2018-22 plan as a “strong, independent” company.

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