Michael Manley is regarded as a true car guy, but will that be enough to keep FCA afloat? File picture: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters.

Detroit - Michael Manley, who has replaced Sergio Marchionne as chief of Fiat Chrysler (FCA) after the latter became seriously ill following complications from shoulder surgery, was previously head of the group's Jeep brand, for which he managed to push sales through the one-million mark last year. 

Manley faces the task of executing his predecessor's plan to ramp up production of SUVs and catch up on electric cars to keep the world's seventh-largest carmaker competitive in the absence of a merger.

Born in Edenbridge, southeast of London, the 54-year-old is an engineer by training. He took the driver's seat at Jeep in June 2009 at a time when the US motor industry in general was battling huge headwinds whipped up by the global financial crisis the previous year. 

Having joined the UK division of what was then Daimler Chrysler in 2000 as a distribution networks specialist, Manley broadened his global experience by becoming chief operating officer of Chrysler's Asia-Pacific operations.

From 2015, he also headed the Ram division, producing big pick-ups and vans under the Chrysler badge after it and Fiat had merged in 2014.

With Manley at the helm, Jeep - dubbed one of America's top three most patriotic brands in a Brand Keys study published last month - has more than trebled sales, breaking through the one million mark last year and becoming the main driver of profits for the entire FCA group. 

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, said that "the success of the Jeep brand under Mike Manley and his global background make him the smart choice to be the new head of FCA.

"His international experience in growing that brand will play a key role as he applies those techniques to all of the Fiat Chrysler divisions."
Under Manley's stewardship, Jeep's unit sales have soared from 337 000 in 2008 - 80 percent of which were in North America - to 1.4 million last year. And the target is to hit 1.9 million over the next year.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that Jeep will this year account for some 70 percent of overall group profits.

The premium brand is also key to a five-year FCA plan unveiled by Marchionne in June to increasingly focus on hybrid and electric vehicles.

Right man for the job, say analysts

New Jeep models, such as the redesigned Compass, have contributed to a surge in sales for the Iconic American brand. Picture: Jeep.

Analysts said that choosing the 54-year-old Manley, under whose watch Jeep's sales surged fourfold, sent a clear message that FCA was staying on course and would keep the Jeep brand at the heart of its growth plan.

"Manley knows that his primary focus is on execution and that, already, he has a strategy into which his team has bought," said George Galliers, an analyst at Evercore ISI.

"There is no reason the 2022 plan cannot be executed."

Under Manley, the company is expected to sharpen its focus on revamping individual brands, including ailing Fiat in Europe, Chrysler in the United States and Alfa Romeo, which has yet to turn a profit despite multibillion-euro investments.

Marchionne, widely credited with rescuing both Fiat and Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy, had focused on fixing FCA's finances first, notably erasing all debt.

But his track record at fixing some of FCA's brands was mixed, with investments and product launches repeatedly delayed.

"FCA needs to fix the volume brands before it's too late and make them appealing again. ... Manley is the right man for that job," said Felipe Munoz, an automotive analyst at JATO.

Marchionne had advocated industry mergers to share the cost of building electric, hybrid and self-driving cars, but gave up the quest when his preferred target, General Motors, rejected his advances.

FCA said on Saturday that Manley would execute the new strategy to ensure a "strong and independent" future for the group.

But without a partner in sight, Manley needs to show FCA can keep churning out profits on its own, even as emissions rules tighten, SUV competition intensifies and worries over potential US emissions fines abound.

Sources: Agence France-Presse & Reuters