Chrysler dealers have by now gotten used to the idea that CEO Sergio Marchionne has a radically different approach to saving distressed car companies than his most renowned predecessor at Chrysler, Lee Iacocca.
While Iacocca was a dealer man who grew up in the Ford dealer organization before going to Chrysler, Marchionne is a back-shop operator. Iacocca was skilled at the arts of glad-handing and massaging dealer egos. Marchionne's strength is working in the bowels of the company, driving teams of engineers in the Herculean task of developing a new generation of vehicles.
Marchionne was conspicuous by his absence here at the NADA convention in Orlando. Dealers instead heard from Fred Diaz Jr., appointed by Marchionne as Chrysler's lead sales executive last October. Mopar and Chrysler brand CEOs Pietro Gorlier and Olivier Francois also were on hand.
The make meeting here in Orlando was a relatively quiet affair compared to 2009's tumultuous Chrysler meeting in New Orleans, where former Chrysler co-President Jim Press made an impassioned plea to dealers to buy more cars as Chrysler slid toward bankruptcy.
Dealers are feeling a mixture of hope and anxiety about Chrysler's future under new management.
"I leave very happy right now," said Chris Saraceno, vice president of Kelly Management Corp., which owns a Jeep dealership in Melbourne, Fla. Saraceno decided to leave the meeting early because he was so pleased by the direction that Marchionne's lieutenants charted. Saraceno, whose company holds franchises for eight non-Chrysler brands, said he had come to Orlando most concerned about Chrysler but was satisfied with the company's progress.
But several dealers wished that Marchionne had put in an appearance.
Tammy Darvish, vice president of Darcars, which has five Chrysler dealerships in the Washington, D.C. area, said she was happy with what she heard from Chrysler executives at the meeting.
Darvish has been a vocal critic of Chrysler's strategy in terminating 789 dealerships during bankruptcy and she is co-founder of the Committee to Restore Dealer Rights, which pursued legislation to restore franchises to dealers who lost them.
"I'm very confident of my investment in Chrysler," she said. But that confidence is tempered "knowing there is this mysterious leader (Marchionne) I've not had the opportunity to meet."
Marchionne has said repeatedly he has a limited appetite for public functions and speechmaking.
But that didn't stop the famously driven CEO from a series of appearances last week. He started the week in Toluca, Mexico, to kick off production of the Fiat 500 minicar.
Then he flew to Turin on Wednesday. By Thursday he was in Russia to sign a car-making joint venture there. Then it was on to Toronto to attend a Friday fundraiser for Abruzzo, the region of Italy where he was born and which was ravaged by a 2009 earthquake.
On Sunday, Marchionne was back in Turin, though it's doubtful he's resting.