Fiat SpA, Italy’s largest manufacturer and a symbol of the country’s struggle to adapt to globalization, is leaving home after 115 years.
The controlling Agnelli family and other investors, holding their final shareholders meeting in Turin on Friday, sealed the end of Fiat as an Italian company with a vote approving a merger with Chrysler. Created by Italian-Canadian CEO Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will be incorporated under Dutch law, based in the United Kingdom and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
“Marchionne doesn’t want to abandon Italy; he wants FCA and himself to be global players, and the center of gravity of FCA has to be repositioned in order to do that,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “It is a little sad for Italy.”
The new entity’s cosmopolitan structure reflects an auto-industry shift away from national champions like Fiat, which for decades prided itself on its Italian and Turin heritage. By combining resources with the U.S. carmaker, the company formerly known as Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino can better compete with heavyweights like General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp., Marchionne says. A brush with bankruptcy a decade ago proved the Italian focus was unsustainable.
“Marchionne needs the lights of Wall Street,” where Fiat Chrysler plans to locate its primary listing by mid-October, said Vincenzo Longo, an investment strategist at IG Group in Milan. There’s more opportunity there than a “peripheral place like what the Italian market has become.”
Italy's stagnant economy
Hampered by insufficient reforms, the Italian economy has stagnated over the past 14 years and contracted 10 of the last 11 quarters. Unemployment rates are near record levels, leading thousands of Italians to leave in search of a better future.
The same goes for Fiat. Toughening regulation calls for large sales volumes to finance development of cleaner engines and expand in growth markets like China and India. Bolstered by the combination, Fiat plans to invest $74 billion in the next five years to boost deliveries 61 percent to 7 million cars by 2018. That’s still less than VW’s target to sell 10 million vehicles this year.
Marchionne told shareholders today that he’s targeting annual group revenue exceeding $175 billion in five years. That would amount to a 50 percent increase from the $116 billion posted last year. The carmaker probably won’t need to sell shares to fund growth, though any decision will be up to the new company’s board, he told journalists later.
There’s little option for Fiat as a stand-alone company. North American operations, which were non-existent before Fiat gained control of Chrysler about five years ago, accounted for 62 percent of group second-quarter operating profit. The manufacturer’s once-core European operations lost 6 million euros, as the saturated market gradually recovers from a two-decade low. Without its U.S. division, Fiat would have been unprofitable in 2012 and 2013.
To reduce Fiat’s reliance on Italy for sales and as a production base, Marchionne started seeking a partner about 10 years ago when he took charge of the manufacturer, which was financially strapped.
The search, which included a failed bid for GM’s Opel unit, wasn’t successful until Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy. Faced with the prospect of liquidating America’s third-biggest carmaker, the U.S. government gave Fiat a chance to turn around the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based company.
Chrysler's U.S. sales surge
Chrysler said Friday that its U.S. deliveries jumped 20 percent to 167,667 in July, propelled by a 41 percent surge for the Jeep sport-utility vehicle brand. The growth marked the 52nd consecutive monthly sales gain for Chrysler in its home market.
While Italy won’t be completely abandoned, it will become less central. The headquarters will move from a villa adjacent to Fiat’s iconic former Lingotto factory, which features an oval track on its roof and now houses shops, a hotel and a theater, in a sign that Italy can move on. The new location will be in Slough, England, until Fiat opens a London office by the end of the year. Milan will be relegated to a secondary listing for FCA’s shares.
To take the sting out of the shift, Marchionne plans to keep administration and information-technology functions in Turin. He’s also vowed to keep all of Fiat’s Italian factories open and rehire about 30,000 line workers, who are largely on furlough.
Fiat's Maserati strategy
To do that, he plans to build the compact Jeep Renegade as well as other models from the Chrysler brand in Italy. Fiat also intends to expand the upscale Alfa Romeo and Maserati nameplates to compete worldwide with the likes of BMW, Audi and Porsche.
Marchionne reiterated Friday that the manufacturer’s commitment to Italy will remain unchanged.
Still, the deal isn’t a cure-all. FCA lacks a sizable presence in China and its Latin American operations are struggling. Even before the Chrysler combination is finalized, Fiat has been linked to mergers or deals with Volkswagen as well as France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen in recent weeks. While Fiat has publicly denied talks, the reports reflect investor skepticism about Fiat’s ability to meet its targets, even as Marchionne basks in his fairy-tale deal.
Before Chrysler’s turnaround under Fiat, “we were the poor kids, Cinderella at the ball,” Marchionne said in June. “People in the U.S. actually like that. They like what happened.”