Lindsay Chappell
Lindsay Chappell
Infiniti, Nissan Reporter

'Fiat in Tennessee' is absurd -- and yet …

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Last month, the governor of Tennessee had the audacity to propose to Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne that the Italian automaker move its global headquarters to Tennessee.

Sure. That'll happen.

But it didn't hurt to ask. Marchionne and Gov. Bill Haslam were together on Father's Day in the little town of Pulaski, Tenn., where the Fiat boss was cutting the ribbon, so to speak, on a new Fiat group parts factory. Fiat is planning to hire 850 people there, on top of about 200 others who already are on site making auto lights and suspension parts.

But consider this: What a wacky turn of history it is that in 2013, the governor of Tennessee would even be in the situation of asking the head of Fiat S.p.A. to consider pulling his auto company out of Italy and relocating it in the land of sipping whiskey, tobacco farms and recording studios.

How many locked doors have come open in the past few years to make this conversation even remotely plausible?

Not so long ago, Fiat and Italy were indivisible. Fiat owned the Italian home market. Imports were scant. Fiat's global ambitions were meager.

Not so long ago, Fiat was struggling as a financial holding of General Motors, which had its own financial issues gurgling under the surface. In truth, it looked for a while that Fiat might simply cease to be.

Fiat not only reversed that outlook; it rebounded enough to re-emerge as a powerful force on the North American landscape to rescue Chrysler from its own certain death.

And rather than simply sitting back in the shadows like a silent partner, which Renault has elected to do in the United States despite its financial control of Nissan, Fiat has had the newfound gumption to reintroduce its brands into the United States, overcoming its chagrin at having failed epically here back in the 1980s.

Despite now being joined at the hip with one of the Detroit 3 -- emphasis on "Detroit" -- Fiat's CEO has dared to ruminate in public about the possibility that old geographic roots don't necessarily confine him in the future. He actually has indicated that Fiat's global headquarters do not absolutely have to remain in Turin.

Sergio Marchionne: Ruminating in public that old geographic roots won't necessarily confine where Fiat is based in the future.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

In other words, things are different now.

The future will take us to strange new places. The fact that Tennessee was even part of the day's conversation just shows you how yesterday's implausibilities are today's opportunities.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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