Chrysler boss Marchionne: We’re in it together


MACKINAC ISLAND — Drawing comparisons between his company and its home state, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told Michigan business and political leaders Thursday that the resurgent automaker has added 1,600 workers this year to accelerate its product development.

“In many ways,” he said, “the fates of Chrysler Group and the state of Michigan follow parallel paths. Skeptics had foreseen dire futures for both of us. We have all heard predictions that Chrysler would be relegated to the dustbin of history, and that Michigan’s glory days are in the rearview mirror.”

In an after-dinner speech at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference at the Grand Hotel, Marchionne also received strong applause for his resounding endorsement of plans to build a second bridge over the Detroit River.

“I want to make it clear that Chrysler strongly supports the proposed DRIC,” he said. “Each day, Chrysler moves more than 1,300 shipments, some 2,000 cars and trucks, and makes 1,600 entries per day at the Detroit-Windsor border. Hundreds of our employees cross the border to work in the U.S. or Canada.”

And in an interview, the blunt-speaking Italian-Canadian CEO of both Chrysler and its partner Fiat said Chrysler is “ahead of schedule” in posting profits and stopping a severe cash drain less than a year after exiting a government-imposed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Marchionne said “the thing we didn’t see coming” was the battle with dealers that the company tried to eliminate as part of its drastic overhaul.

“We’re winning most of the (arbitration) cases,” he said, “but it’s taking a lot of time and energy. It’s a hassle.”

Marchionne traveled to the island with Chrysler Chairman Robert Kidder and former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Chrysler board member appointed by the UAW-run retiree health care trust that is Chrysler’s largest shareholder.

Ignoring the Grand dining room’s jacket-and-tie rule for men, Marchionne was clad in his signature black sweater as he told the crowd that Chrysler now has nearly 20,000 employees in Michigan, with annual wages of $1.8 billion. In addition to the 1,600 product development hires, Chrysler will start a second shift of 1,080 workers at its Detroit assembly plant to build the new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Marchionne said the proposed second bridge between Detroit and Windsor — the project known as DRIC for Detroit River International Crossing — is essential to further growth for Chrysler.

“The need for an additional crossing to handle current and future trade flows is widely acknowledged, and it is imperative that this new crossing be completed as soon as possible,” he said.

Bankruptcy and a government rescue of Chrysler and GM, Marchionne said, “facilitated a courageous shift that brought together government, trade unions, business, workers and financial institutions as partners with the goal of saving more than just the automotive industry.”

But Chrysler and other automakers now face a host of new challenges, he said, singling out the rise of China as an automotive power.

“We cannot respond to this growth with a series of complaints that in the end all add up to one: ‘Why can’t the Chinese be like us?’ ” Marchionne said. “We cannot afford to be unprepared … reassuring ourselves of our invincibility.”

That message is spot-on. Detroit paid plenty for years of wallowing in denial and overconfidence. Now that Chrysler and GM appear to be stabilizing, it’s imperative that they not relax. That’s certainly not likely at Chrysler, not on Marchionne’s watch.

Contact TOM WALSH: 313-223-4430