AUBURN HILLS, MI – Chrysler officials were blindsided when former Ram President and CEO Fred Diaz suddenly departed his post for an executive role at Nissan in April.

Diaz, in many ways, was synonymous with the fledgling brand. Unlike Dodge or Chrysler, decades-old brands that had seen several changes in leadership, here was a chance for a new executive to build a nameplate from the ground up.

When Diaz left, Chrysler immediately tapped U.S. sales chief and Dodge brand President Reid Bigland to fill the gap, a likely choice considering Ram’s position within the Chrysler group as a growing sales leader.

Bigland retained his role as head of Chrysler U.S. and Canada sales, and Tim Kuniskis, former president and CEO of the Fiat brand, took over Dodge.

Bigland sees share growth for Ram as the U.S. housing market rebounds. But while swaying customers from Ford and General Motors showrooms is a goal, maintaining the integrity of the new brand is a priority.

“I’m extremely excited to be the director of the portfolio,” Bigland tells reporters during a roundtable at the auto maker’s headquarters here. “It’s really convalescent around execution. Execution is getting our products into the market.”

The Ram ProMaster large commercial van launches in two months, and in the third quarter a diesel-powered 1500 pickup comes to market employing the same 3.0L Fiat-VM Motori-designed mill available in the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The 1500’s top-trim models, the Laramie Limited and Laramie Longhorn, could undergo more refinement as the premium pickup market grows. “How much more can you add to the truck that will have every feature known to mankind without getting into the frivolous?” Bigland asks rhetorically.

He also says a Fiat Doblo-based small van will be sold in the U.S. as a Ram sometime within the next two years. Additionally, the auto maker is studying a Dakota replacement. Ideally, a small pickup to fight the Toyota Tacoma or attract former Ford Ranger customers would sticker for less than $20,000.

“But when it comes to executing on that pickup in today’s world – meeting all of the current safety standards, regulatory requirements, the ability to get a truck into what I just described at under $22,000 or $23,000 – it’s a massive challenge,” he says. “And then you’re right up against fullsize, half-ton pickups.”

If a small truck is added to the Ram portfolio, Bigland hints it could be Fiat-based, echoing other statements from Chrysler executives that future Ram products might borrow from the Fiat Industrial portfolio.

That’s evident with the forthcoming ProMaster fullsize commercial van, based on the Fiat Ducato. Bigland says the auto maker will take lessons learned from selling Daimler-built Dodge Sprinter vans and Fiat’s experience with the Ducato to market the ProMaster in the U.S.

“I think it’s clear that it’s a different sales process,” he says. “We need to make sure that dealers are ready to get out and knock on doors and sell that thing, as opposed to waiting for people to come in (to the dealership).”

Ram Commercial, the spinoff division primarily responsible for distribution, sales and maintenance of the ProMaster, will tap into Chrysler’s relationship with third-party up-fitters and use that as a key selling point.

“The shell is one thing, but how it’s configured on the inside and getting it done in a timely manner is essential,” Bigland says.

Chrysler’s fleet mix is expected to rise with the introduction of the ProMaster. Right now, about 22% of total sales are to fleets, he estimates. “That’s way down from back in the day when it was almost 40% fleet. We’re right around the industry (average) right now.”

Bigland dispels the notion that Chrysler relies on fleet sales to push sales figures. “I’ve often said when it comes to fleet, and often fleet gets regarded as being a bit of a bad customer, there’s no such thing as a bad customer, just a bad deal.”

In his role as head of sales, Bigland will continue to keep close to the Dodge brand, particularly as the Dart compact finds its legs in the market.

“Clearly in the case of Dodge, it is still the highest-volume brand in the U.S. market.” Bigland says. “To a certain extent, as goes Dodge so goes U.S. sales. We definitely need Dodge to contribute quite heavily. But Ram is certainly no slouch. We need both high sales from Ram and extremely strong margins, from a corporate perspective.”

Bigland’s other priorities include smoothing the launches of the 2.4L Multi-Air-powered Dodge Dart GT and Jeep Cherokee, both of which will be key to sales going forward; maintaining Ram’s relationship with Fiat Industrial in Europe; and monitoring customer financing through Chrysler Capital, the new in-house financing arm powered by Spain’s Banco Santander.

Chrysler Capital launched in May, and about 21% of customers borrow through that entity, Bigland says. “I consider that to be pretty strong for the first month out of the chute.”

And there still is some adjusting to be done with the recent executive shuffle. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Tim on the Dodge front,” Bigland says about helping Kuniskis transition to his new post.

When it comes to Bigland’s move to oversee the Ram brand, “(I’m) clearly experienced in selling some Rams in Canada and here in the U.S.,” he says. “But when you get into the role as CEO, you get into a tremendous amount of detail leading that respective brand.”

afoley@wardsauto.com