Sergio Marchionne, who has crisscrossed the Atlantic since last summer running Italian automaker Fiat and U.S. carmaker Chrysler, said Monday he expects to divide his leadership role at the companies within two years.
Marchionne, installed by the U.S. government as CEO of Chrysler Group LLC following the automaker's emergence from bankruptcy in June, said he was working "24-7" to manage the transfer of technologies from Fiat Group SpA to Chrysler, a key piece of the U.S. company's revival. He declined to elaborate, but indicated he would not keep running both companies simultaneously for an extended period of time.
"There's got to be this blood transfusion and it needs to happen at the speed of light," Marchionne said during an address to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "This cannot go on forever so certainly within the next 24 months we'll find a more permanent solution, either there or here. I'm not threatening the Italian side with a departure from Italy, but we need to find a solution to this issue."
Marchionne confirmed that the automaker plans to build a 1.4-liter engine for the Fiat 500 minicar at Chrysler's engine plant in Dundee, Mich., and the 500, to be built in Mexico, will roll off the assembly line late next year. Turin-based Fiat took a 20 percent stake in Chrysler earlier this year as part of its exit from bankruptcy protection and can increase its holdings to 35 percent by creating smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
"I know we'll get it," Marchionne said of the increased stake in Chrysler. "I just want to get this house right."
Marchionne attempted to keep expectations in check, telling the think tank audience that Chrysler's recovery will be gradual and his leadership team was "not planning miracles" but committed to bringing "rapid change" to the automaker. He said Chrysler broke even in September and October and was dedicated to a five-year plan to overhaul the automaker's vehicle lineup and double sales.
"We're not perfect. We're going to continue to screw up," Marchionne said. "I think we're screwing up a lot less than we did six months ago."
He credited the Obama administration with pushing the U.S. auto industry to restructure itself and said European nations need to do more to reduce overcapacity in the industry. In Germany, for example, he said not a single plant had been closed since World War II despite significant technological advances in recent decades.
Chrysler has received roughly $15 billion in aid from the U.S. government and through early November, the Auburn Hills, Mich., car company still had about $9 billion of the funds available. Chrysler has said it intends to repay the loans by 2014.
Marchionne said he relishes the challenge of leading Chrysler out of its morass.
"There will always be naysayers out there," he said. "I actually don't mind them. I also don't mind being an underdog and to be given a chance to prove them wrong."