Talk from the Top - boss of car firm Chrysler sees open road ahead
When Clint Eastwood faced the camera and growled ‘It’s half-time America’ during the midpoint of 2012’s Super Bowl, he made a bigger impact than any of the big hits being dished out by the players.
The screen icon’s message that America may find itself ‘hurting’ but that there was enough time left on the clock to ‘make a comeback’ - delivered over images of resolute families and accompanied with a soaring orchestral score - struck a chord with the sporting extravaganza’s viewers. Millions rushed to re-view the clip on YouTube, and Clint even became embroiled in a Stateside political storm as Republicans accused him of bolstering President Obama’s re-election effort.
What was somewhat lost in the reaction was that the clip was an ad for US motoring giant Chrysler. And the manufacturer of all-American vehicles under brands such as Dodge, Jeep, and the Chrysler name itself, knows something about comebacks.
When the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers unleashed a financial crisis in 2008, the US motor industry’s Big Three - Chrysler, General Motors and Ford - were hit hard. By 2009 Chrysler was facing a fight for its future before the US government stepped in with a bailout worth billions of dollars.
Jack Rodencal, the firm’s boss for the Middle East, says the turmoil has been cathartic.
“I was there through the bankruptcy,” he says, “And at the end of 2009 a bunch of us were sitting around and reminiscing and the one thing we all said was that we were very glad that we had gone through and survived it, because if you could go through the year 2009, especially working for Chrysler, you could survive anything. The only thing we were sure of was we never wanted to go through another one.”
The way Rodencal tells it, the arrival of Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne at Chrysler has refocused the once-ailing manufacturer.
“He freed up and released a lot of people to do what they want to - he let car people be good car people.
“The best way I can put it is that right now you have got car people building cars they like.” The results of the major changes at Chrysler are there for all to see. In the first three months of this year the firm reported its best quarterly profit in 13 years, making $473 million as sales rose strongly.
Around the same time, it was announced that the Middle East operations overseen by Rodencal achieved a record year in 2011 - sales were up 20 per cent on 2010 as the firm shifted over 15,000 vehicles across its brands.
“The company recognises this region is more and more important to its long-term growth and future,” says the Chrysler boss, who has the brand in the blood - his father owned a Dodge dealership in the US.
Rodencal has worked for the firm since 1985, and held posts in Chile and Germany as well as his homeland. Middle East customers, with their large families and their preference for comfort and security, remind him most of those he found back in the US. The firm’s biggest seller in the region is the Dodge Charger - a car Rodencal says is popular with young families but also “really roars”.
But in future, like the rest of the industry, he anticipates customers may well be more interested in gallons than grunt as improved fuel consumption and lower carbon emissions become priorities - even in a region with some of the lowest fuel prices in the world.
As for Clint, did Rodencal think the firm’s message would prove be so controversial?
“I didn’t see it that way, I looked at it and said, that’s the spirit of a lot of our customers. ‘Hey, it’s been tough, but we are going to come back and it is going to be better.’”
LIVE AND LEARN
Name: JACK RODENCAL
Firm: CHRYSLER GROUP
Position: MIDDLE EAST MD
Q WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?
A I used to cut grass and shovel sidewalks in the neighbourhood for a number of people. After that I always wanted to be a banker, until I was one. I was a credit analyst in my first job and that cured me of that.
Q WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON YOUR CAREER?
A I would have to say my father. He was a very successful individual, but he had a very good balance about life. Going back to my first official job, it took me six months to realise it was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I thought, gosh, I don’t really want to talk to him about this, I’m a failure - I always wanted to do this and now I want to get out of it. The only piece of advice he gave me - my mother made me talk to him - was y’know, life’s too short. If you don’t like it, find what you want to do and go do it.
Q LOOKING BACK, WOULD YOU ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?
A Career wise I have no regrets other than sometimes moving the family. My family has been very supportive of me moving around, bouncing around. My kids have lived on four different continents. So you always wish you spent more time with them.
Q HOW DO YOU RELAX?
A We travel, I swim, play some bad golf, and read.
Q WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO GET INTO YOUR INDUSTRY?
A It’s very simple advice. Figure out what you want to do and what you like to do and don’t worry about aspirations or money. Figure out what will make you happy and do it.