Special Coverage

New York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – One man can’t do it all, insists Sergio Marchionne, a non-believer in business personality cults but firmly in place as CEO of Fiat Automobiles SpA and now head of Chrysler Group LLC, observing its first anniversary after bankruptcy.

At the National Automobile Dealers Assn./IHS Global Insight conference held here in conjunction with the New York International Auto Show, Marchionne is introduced as an auto executive who reversed Fiat’s fortunes in Italy. Many Americans are rooting for him to do that for Chrysler, as well.

But no captain can singlehandedly turn around such a big ship, Marchionne insists.

“In too many industries, this one in particular, there is the belief in one guy,” he says. “People gravitate to the 1-guy solution. I’m good at building a team that works.”

Once he’s assembled that cadre, “I don’t look over their shoulders,” Marchionne says. As a talent scout, “I look for people who embrace change and lead people.”

In a dissenting opinion, Michael Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., the largest dealership chain in the U.S., tells Marchionne a forceful top executive can “make all the difference.”

Jackson later tells Ward’s: “Look at Alan Mulally. Do you think Ford (Motor Co.) would be where it is today if he weren’t its CEO?”

Just before Marchionne became Chrysler CEO, the auto maker slashed more than 700 dealers, about 25% of its distribution network.

In response to that, the U.S. Congress, lobbied by dealers, ordered arbitration hearings for retailers who lost their franchises as part of streamlining efforts at Chrysler and General Motors Co.

Marchionne deems that act of Congress a hindrance. Still, he makes it a point to praise dealers.

“Dealerships are much more than a sales organization,” he tells the dealer-heavy audience. “Dealers are the face of the brand, the guarantors of our credibility. We need a strong dealership network that can work with us. We are in this battle together.”

Marchionne says he met last year with Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler chief whom many people credit with using the power of personality to lead the lost auto maker out of the woods in the 1980s.

“Lee Iacocca is the best car salesman I ever met,” he says.

Describing Chrysler’s government-aided second chance, Marchionne cites another American icon, rocker Bruce Springsteen.

Quoting from “Thunder Road,” a 1975 Springsteen classic, Marchionne says: “We got one last chance to make it real.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com