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Chrysler earnings jump, Fiat's fall, in 2012


Chrysler has gone from being the automaker nobody wanted, to the goose that lays the golden egg for its majority owner, Fiat.

While Chrysler made $1.7 billion in 2012, Fiat lost $1.4 billion, as the fiscal crisis in Europe deepened, creating a new bottom for car sales that even the most pessimistic analysts didn't see foresee.

But while Chrysler is making money, and Fiat is losing it, the two companies' CEO, Sergio Marchionne, reiterated in an analyst and media conference call that he has no intention of stripping cash from Chrysler to help Fiat.

Actually, both companies have roughly equal amounts of cash on hand, although Fiat announced this week it will not give out a 2012 dividend in order to preserve its cash.

"This thing is irreversible"

Marchionne does want Fiat to eventually own all of Chrysler.

Currently Fiat owns 58.5% of the Detroit automaker, and it holds options to purchase more from the VEBA, for a total of 75%.   The VEBA is a trust set up to pay for union retiree health care, using the proceeds from sales of its Chrysler stock.

Marchionne says he doesn't see Fiat remaining separate from Chrysler.

But the timeline for full ownership and full merger is highly uncertain, especially since the VEBA has formally requested that Chrysler prepare an initial public offering for 16.6 percent of its stake.

"They (Chrysler and Fiat) started constructing a future in 2009, and that connection now is inextricable," Marchionne said. "I don't see the future of Fiat and Chrysler as being separate. I see them as one entity, at some point in time.... This thing is irreversible."

An IPO, if it happens, won't happen right away. Chrysler estimates it will take eight to nine months to prepare for the offering.

Path to redemption

Chrysler hopes to continue increasing its market share growth in North America in 2013, forecasting higher sales and revenues - most of it from the RAM and Jeep brands.

Globally, many hopes are pinned on Jeep as well. Jeep set a global sales record last year, and Marchionne says what's dampening the brand's growth is production constraints, not lack of demand. "If I had more Jeeps, I'd sell more Jeeps," he says.

Those production constraints will ease, but not before 2014. Fiat will begin building a small Jeep for global distribution at its Melfi factory in Italy in 2014. And eventually, Jeeps will be built in China - for Chinese customers.

Marchionne notes Chrysler missed many opportunities over the years to leverage Jeep as a global brand - especially in China, leading to its virtual disappearance from the market.

"Jeep may be our way to redemption," he said. "Slowly but surely I think we need to make our way back into that market."

Spending too much on ads?

Chrysler spent $3.3 billion on sales and marketing in 2012, more than it spent on research and development, and significantly more than rivals like Ford.

The company's marketing efforts have played a very large role in revitalizing the brand's image in the U.S., most notably with an unprecedented two minute-long Super Bowl ad featuring Eminem two years ago.

Marchionne says the expense erodes gross profits, but it has so far been necessary, to reverse years of decline for Chrysler brands in the U.S.

The company plans another big Super Bowl ad this Sunday.

"We are overspending," says Marchionne. "And we understand this. But we are doing this with a very clear objective and a very clear intent."

The plan is the plan, until it's not; (or, more Fiats, fewer Chryslers)

Chrysler updated its product plan, first unveiled in 2009, when Fiat was given a 20 percent stake of a bankrupt Chrysler, in return for managing it.

Plans to introduce two new Chrysler vehicles in 2013 have been dropped, as well as plans to introduce two new Dodge vehicles.

But the Fiat brand will be greatly expanded. In 2015, the U.S. could see six new Fiat vehicles - along with four new Alfa Romeos. Alfa Romeo makes its first re-appearance in the U.S. at the end of this year.

Marchionne cautioned the plan is "a living document," and will likely be revised again and again in the years ahead.

But many key assumptions that Marchionne laid out in the original Chrysler plan of 2009 - initially scorned by analysts - have proven true.

Chrysler hit its forecast targets for global vehicle shipments in 2010 and last year.

Some of its goals were exceeded. Chrysler generated $66 billion in revenue last year, above its target of $57.5 billion.

In 2013, Chrysler forecasts worldwide shipments of between 2.6 and 2.7 million - and revenues of $72 billion.

In contrast, Fiat does not expect to break even until 2015, nor to make any profit until 2016, because of the depth of the recession in Europe, and the paralyzing slowness involved in reducing plant capacity and workforce in the region.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.