Is Fiat Chrysler the Next Ford Motor Company, or the Next Big Flop?

Fiat Chrysler presented its turnaround plan to investors last week, but this Fool isn't buying it -- not yet.

May 12, 2014 at 10:15AM

The newly merged Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NASDAQOTH:FIATY) outlined its strategy to become a global powerhouse automaker last week. CEO Sergio Marchionne plans to drive sales higher, raise profitability, significantly reduce debt, and invest 48 billion euros ($67 billion) in a global expansion led by its Jeep, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo brands. Sounds good, right?

Well, investors and analysts didn't buy it. The plan outlined by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA, in combination with its poor first-quarter results, sent the stock into an abrupt plunge by as much as 12% by the middle of the week.

While I think that much of the plan is highly questionable, I remind myself that many questioned Ford's turnaround strategy more than five years ago. Now, Ford's turnaround is considered a story for the ages, a story that will be discussed in business classes for decades. Here are some highlights of FCA's plan, and you can decide for yourself if this is the next Ford, or the next flop.


Jeep Grand Cherokee. Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Can Jeep save Fiat Chrysler?
The bulk of FCA's turnaround strategy will revolve around three brands: Alfa Romeo, Jeep, and Maserati. Jeep might be the most important, and the most believable, of all the brand presentations (link opens a PDF) dished out to investors.

Jeep will launch the smaller Renegade this year, as well as a new compact SUV in 2016 that will replace the Compass and Patriot models. In 2017 a new Wrangler and Grand Cherokee will hit the markets, followed by a three-row Grand Wagoneer in 2018.

Jeep is expected to lead Fiat Chrysler's global charge, which should bode well for the SUV-based brand, as the segments it competes in are surging in popularity globally. Jeep was the No. 1 SUV brand in the world through 1990, before slipping to No. 6 today. Fiat Chrysler is planning for Jeep to reclaim that No. 1 SUV brand title, and it will need to do so to turn the overall company around.

It is conceivable that Jeep can reclaim that No. 1 spot, and investors can be happy that it's already making visible progress. Jeep's international sales have grown from 18% of all sales in 2009 to account for an estimated 24% of total sales when the books are closed for 2014. The Jeep brand also set back-to-back world sales records in 2012 and 2013 and posted its best-ever monthly sales result in its 73-year history just last month.

In all, as Jeep refreshes its vehicle portfolio, and expands its sales into global markets, it hopes to grow sales from 732,000 last year to 1.9 million in 2018 -- lofty goals, to be sure. But at least Jeep is making progress and has a feasible strategy. The same can't be said for all of Fiat Chrysler's goals and strategies.

Alfa Romeo and Maserati
Alfa Romeo might have been the most disappointing presentation (link opens a PDF) during FCA's investor day, in my opinion. Go ahead and open that link and tell me if you get past slide 18. If you do, you won't find much strategy or many facts to assure investors that FCA can drive Alfa Romeo to reach the lofty goal set for the brand.

Fiat Chrysler plans to inject 5 billion euros into the Alfa Romeo brand through 2018 to roll out eight new vehicles in an attempt to grow sales from 74,000 to 400,000. The Alfa Romeo brand has the potential to drive higher transaction prices and profits for the automaker, but 5 billion euros to reach 400,000 in annual sales -- which is far from a guarantee -- seems a bit expensive. It seems especially expensive when you consider there were very few details explaining where that money was going and how it was going to drive sales.


Maserati Alfieri shown at the Geneva Autoshow. Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Maserati had a more convincing presentation (link opens a PDF) than Alfa Romeo. From 2012 to 2013, sales more than doubled from 6,200 to 15,400 and revenues from those sales jumped from 755 million euros to 1.6 billion euros. Looking ahead, Maserati is expected to increase its sales more than fourfold from 15,400 units last year to 75,000 by 2018, which would push that 1.6 billion euro revenue to more than 6 billion euros.

To help accomplish this feat, FCA plans to inject more than 2 billion euros into the Maserati brand to expand its vehicle offering to six, including the sleek sports car shown at the Geneva auto show in March. Keep an eye on Alfa Romeo and Maserati vehicles as they begin to roll out, because if they disappoint in sales, it's going to be a big blow to FCA's ambitious turnaround.

Final thoughts
I walked away from Fiat Chrysler's presentations feeling torn. On one hand, the company has compelling ultra-luxury brands like Maserati with a lot of potential, a very profitable Ram Truck brand, and the globalization of the Jeep brand, which should also help drive strong profits. On the other hand, there were some very big questions about the Alfa Romeo brand and how Fiat Chrysler would magically fund this estimated $67 billion makeover. Analysts didn't pull their punches, either.

"The aspiration is big, but the questions are bigger," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the the University of Michigan, according to Forbes

"You're giving me very lofty 2018 targets, which I think are just not credible," said Erich Hauser, an analyst at International Strategy & Investment Group, according to Automotive News.

And my favorite: "The problem is PowerPoint presentations are a lot easier than real life," said Harald Hendrikse, an analyst with Nomura Holdings Inc, according to Automotive News.

So, ultimately, is Fiat Chrysler the next automaker to enact a business turnaround like Ford did? Is FCA an investor's ticket to doubling up (or more) once it goes public? I just don't see it. There's very little data coming from Fiat Chrysler currently to suggest that any rebound is starting, and there aren't enough details in the presentation to give me confidence that such an ambitious facelift will magically take place by 2018.

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