In four years, Sergio Marchionne has revived Chrysler, merged it with the global Fiat organization and energized both companies with the force of his personality.
Now, add another long shot to the CEO's list: He wants to put little-known Maserati on the shopping lists of wealthy U.S. consumers who favor such luxury brands as Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
Marchionne put the ambitious project in America's living rooms with a striking commercial for Maserati during the Super Bowl, an unusual purchase for such an inconspicuous brand.
But that's just the start. He plans to expand by two-thirds the brand's small network of U.S. dealerships and triple its annual global sales within two years.
Surprisingly, Marchionne has put homegrown talent from Chrysler, not Fiat executives from Italy, in charge of the project in the United States.
Peter Grady, Chrysler's longtime head of dealer network development, was appointed in November head of Maserati's operations in North and South America. Saad Chehab, former head of the Chrysler brand, is the new global marketing chief. The global head of Maserati is Harald Wester.
A few numbers highlight the enormity of their task: Last year, Maserati sold just 4,981 vehicles in the United States. Jaguar, meanwhile, sold 16,952 while Mercedes sold 334,344.
For Marchionne, Maserati's brand identity is a key advantage.
"That Maserati brand is as Italian as pizza, and it's impossible to take out the Italianness of that brand. We don't want to," Marchionne told Paul W. Smith of Detroit's WJR radio station.
Despite its heritage, Maserati is largely invisible in the United States. Only 75 dealers carry the brand, and until late last year, it sold just two nameplates, the four-door Quattroporte and the two-door Granturismo, which has a convertible version. The Quattroporte's sticker starts at $104,000, including delivery.
Ghibli boosts sales
But Grady expects the new Ghibli, the star of the Super Bowl commercial, to bring in new customers and dramatically boost sales. The Ghibli starts at $68,150, including delivery.
The Super Bowl commercial cast Maserati as a giant killer -- apt given the challenge ahead.
"The world is full of giants," the voiceover says.
"We had to learn how to deal with them, how to overcome them. ... We wait until they get sleepy, wait until they get so big they can barely move, and then walk out of the shadows, quietly walk out of the dark -- and strike."
The Ghibli went on sale in the United States in October, but most dealers lacked sufficient stock until the end of December, Grady said.
The car is powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 that produces 345 hp. It is 196 inches in length, four inches longer than a Mercedes-Benz E class.
John Carey of Autoweek, a sibling publication of Automotive News, likes the car. "For both its looks and its sporty driving prowess, the Ghibli is a car to kindle desire," he said. "For those who want to stand apart from the conformist crowd, this Maserati makes a very persuasive case."
The Ghibli is moving the sales needle. Maserati's U.S. dealers sold 335 Ghiblis in January. That helped the brand sell 567 cars for the month, compared with 172 in January 2013.
"What the Super Bowl ad did was, it put us in the game with the other competitors that are out there, and it put us on the shopping list. Now it's really up to us and our dealers to earn the business," Grady said.
Maserati, which sold 15,400 cars globally last year, aims to reach 50,000 in 2015. Of that number, 45 percent or 22,500 will be in the United States, Grady said.
Job 1 for Grady at Maserati is adding dealerships and providing all dealers with training and resources available through Chrysler.
Maserati has 75 dealers in the United States, including new dealerships in Indianapolis and Fort Worth, Texas. Grady plans to expand that number to 125 nationwide by year end.
Most of Maserati's dealerships are in coastal states. Grady is looking to add stores in metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
"There's a big, solid piece of the geography -- now that we have a Ghibli that's a solid entry into the entry-level luxury segment -- that's opened up quite a bit of the market to us," he said.
The Super Bowl spot seemed to turbocharge demand for Maserati franchises, Grady said.
"I think we have more interested dealers than openings, but in some cases, I've got a lot of interested dealers for one opening," he said. Some of the areas the brand is targeting are large metro regions "where we have two dealers, and we really need four or five."
Maserati dealers have started training at the Chrysler Dealer Academy. Also, the automaker is in negotiations with Santander Consumer USA, which operates Chrysler Capital, to establish a similar arrangement to be called Maserati Capital.
The Super Bowl commercial already is helping dealers.
At Maserati of Marin, north of San Francisco, consumer reaction to the Super Bowl commercial was immediate from existing clients and prospects, said Mark Paddack, the general sales manager.
"We've had quite an uptick in traffic. We're working some deals directly off the commercial," Paddack said. The dealership is on pace to quadruple its sales this year.
Maserati dealers found out about the Super Bowl commercial just two days before the game. Complicating matters, most of the dealers were in Miami on the Monday after the game for a long-planned dealer meeting.
Paddack said his dealership is striving to capitalize on the surprise. Employees are reaching out to previous customers to make sure they have a copy of the commercial to share with friends, and they're planning more local advertising.
Paddack said: "Maserati did their job. Now it's up to dealers to do theirs." c