I've discovered an easy way to monitor the progress of Chrysler's turnaround: Take a tour of Detroit's parking lots.
Last week, I drove to an unmarked lot at Detroit Metropolitan Airport where you can see row upon row of shiny new Jeep Commanders — hundreds of them — parked behind a chain-link fence.
These are the infamous "fence cars" that you've heard so much about — vehicles that Chrysler LLC has manufactured without benefit of a dealer order.
In the bad old days, Chrysler would sell vehicles like these to Thrifty Car Rental and other daily rental fleets. And if the rental fleets didn't take them, Chrysler would cram them down the throats of unwilling dealers.
Last summer, fleets of unsold Chrysler cars and trucks would pop up like mushrooms in places like the Michigan state fairgrounds, or the Hazel Park racetrack, or even the Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the Detroit Lions.
With the exception of that airport lot, those locations appear to be empty of unsold Chryslers. And that's really, really good news.
Former Toyota guru Jim Press has been at Chrysler for only five weeks now, but already he's making progress.
His first big decision was to eliminate the company's monthly sales bonus for dealers, a program that forced Chrysler dealerships into price wars with each other.
That program — called the volume performance allowance — was considered necessary because Chrysler had to unload its "fence" cars. The second big decision was to shut down six Chrysler plants to keep inventories from ballooning.
At Chrysler's dealer meeting in Las Vegas last week, Press announced plans to reduce fourth-quarter production by 82,000 vehicles. The cutback will cost Chrysler more than $1 billion in cash flow, but it was the right thing to do.
In the old days, those vehicles ended up in daily rental fleets. In some months, the daily rental fleets and corporate fleets combined accounted for as much as half of Chrysler brand's sales.
Overproduction is a good way to go bankrupt, folks. At the very least, it's a good way to destroy brand equity. With a new generation of minivans on the way, the worst thing Chrysler can do is flood the market with cheap fleet vehicles.
Jim Press is nobody's fool — he won't allow that. And when that lot at Detroit Metropolitan Airport finally empties out, I'll know that he's succeeding.
You may e-mail David Sedgwick at [email protected]