"I sell cars and sentiment"
Market shares, new models and poetry. We interviewed Olivier François, CEO of the Fiat brand. He explains why the company will have to find new areas for expansion abroad, and announces new launches in the United States.
by Franco Oppedisano
«What absence lives in you? Where does your memory glide? From what fragile order did you feed your chaos?». The contrast between the verses of poetry and the metallic clang of machinery assembling the new Panda is sharp. Yet the same man is behind both. Sprawled in a white leather armchair in one of the private conference rooms of the Fiat plant in Pomigliano d'Arco, he recites for Panorama Economy the poem that, among the 56 published in his collection Ellissi smemorate (Forgetful Ellipses), he feels most suited to the moment.
Actually, he is rather surprised to be asked to recite it, on the day of the presentation of the Panda, between the press conference and the meeting with the local authorities, but graciously complies, as if he had just written the lines.
Indeed, Olivier François, who is French and just turned 50, is a fascinating mixture of concreteness and creativity, rationality and spontaneity.
He is the son of a university professor, and since August he has been CEO of the Fiat brand, where, as head of Lancia he has succeeded to achieve growth for a brand that has not had any new models for a long time.
That may be why Sergio Marchionne chose him to guide the first steps of the reborn Chrysler company in the U.S. Since August, in addition to taking charge of communications for the auto sector, he has headed the Fiat brand, the core business of Lingotto, and has joined the GEC, the Group executive committee.
What is more, a month ago the American magazine Automotive News, that every year crowns the managers who have distinguished themselves in the automobile world, placed him among the All Stars of the sector for 2011.
What about your poetry?
It is not a priority.
Have you stopped altogether?
I'm translating the poems into English.
But you're not writing anything new.
I devote my esthetic ideas to promotion.
What do you mean?
I have a certain sensitivity that enables me to interpret the mood of the moment and invent a visual language that adds sentiment to the story of a product: my job is to sell cars.
Which, if you put it that way, seems like something quite different.
It isn't though.
Could you explain?
98% of the business of an automobile brand is made of numbers, concrete projects, processes, meeting, models.
And the rest?
The rest are ideas, intuitions outside the box, the sensitivity to grasp signs of weakness, the ability to communicate.
What counts most?
If you can't do the 98%, it's no use being able to do the remaining 2%. Very few know how to do both.
And you are one of those?
I try to be.
What about Marchionne?
He is the best at both.
Of course. But it seems it's not enough to see car sales go up.
If the press were to take a look at car registration data they would have to write that sales are not going so badly after all.
In 2011 in Italy, Fiat did better than its traditional rivals Renault, Peugeot-Citroén, Ford and lost more or less as much as Toyota. The market share remained practically unchanged.
In Europe, however, the drop seems vertical.
Here again there is a lot of demagogy, because the reality is that it is a matter of an unfavorable market mix. Our main sales outlet, Italy, is going worse than the others and consequently we are losing ground in the European total.
How will the world market go for Fiat in 2012?
It is hard to make global forecasts.
Let's make them just for Italy then.
The market will stay at the current unsatisfactory levels.
That's not good news.
No. And it's a problem for both automakers and concessionaires, but there is not much either of them can do.
So what will you do?
We'll have to increase our market shares abroad and try to find outside Italy the sales volumes we are not able to obtain here.
In South American you're already doing well.
We are the leader on the market in Brazil and I have to say I approach a market I don't know very well with great humility, knowing it is already in the hands of competent, skilled people.
What about the United States?
The 500 is breaking the ice there.
But it hasn't reached the goals you set for it.
Starting out is never easy. I'm sure next year we'll do better. Then there will also be other cars.
No... But maybe.
Tell me which.
I've already said too much.
All right, then let's talk about the new models you're preparing.
In 2012 we will have the restyling of the Punto that will not be merely esthetic but also substantial, with the new twin air engine.
Then there's the new Panda. How many do you expect to sell?
Our goal is 230,000 units when we reach full production, between the new and the earlier model, that will remain in production in Poland.
How do you expect to do that?
It has Italian Dna and I think that we have once again achieved what we are renowned for all over the world.
A combination of simplicity and generosity. By simplicity I don't mean skimpy or cheap. I mean what they mean in America: a car that speaks the same language as the user, that is easy to drive like all the things that speak with their heart. Even the design and the technology of the car have to reflect that characteristic.
Having everything you expect to be there and giving much more to the driver. And to the world, because it respects the environment with the twin air and gas engines.
What is your product mix in Italy?
30% is Panda, 27% Punto, 23% 500 and 20% the rest of the cars including the Freemont cars that, though they are clearly of American derivation, perfectly reflect the Fiat values of simplicity and generosity, because it is a car that does everything at an accessible price.
What was it like to go from Chrysler to Fiat?
I feel a great weight of social responsibility, because whatever I do (or don't do) has a significant impact on the work and lives of a lot of people. If something goes wrong, the responsibility, or rather the guilt, is mine.
At least you're spending less time on planes?
Not at all. I am responsible for advertising for all the American brands and spend half my time in Italy and half in America.
The lack of time. I have three children and in 2011 I wasn't able to be there for the birthdays of the two youngest ones (ages 7 and 13, ed.note).
And the other one?
I decided I'd take them all with me to Detroit for the weekend