DETROIT -- Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne has brought a sense of mission to Chrysler that wasn't there under some of Chrysler's previous owners, Ralph Gilles, head of design at Chrysler Group and president of Dodge brand, said today.
“Private equity has its place, but it doesn't belong in the auto industry,” said Gilles, referring to Chrysler's previous owner, Cerberus Capital Management.
Marchionne also has taught his team about accepting challenges, including, in Gilles' case, the task of becoming an executive.
“I have a design background. I have no business being a CEO,” Gilles said in a speech at the 2011 Automotive News World Congress.
Gilles never thought of himself as an executive. He is, by his own admission, more at home wearing jeans and walking around an automotive design studio than running a car company.
But Gilles has embraced his new job and developed his own flair for leadership. Asked if a designer could run a car company, Gilles replied: “Yes, as long as you are surrounded by the right people.”
Gilles is a convert to the matrix management style Marchionne brought to Chrysler. Gilles and his fellow brand bosses all have two jobs: one brand specific and one encompassing all the brands. So Gilles is CEO of Dodge and heads design for all brands; Olivier Francois is Chrysler CEO and heads marketing for all brands; Fred Diaz is CEO of Ram and heads sales for all brands; and Michael Manley is CEO of Jeep and heads all brands' international operations.
“We call it a Mexican standoff. We all hold hands. We can't screw each other,” Gilles said.
As a creative executive, Gilles is acutely aware of the need to keep his staff's creative juices flowing even though there's a crushing workload as Chrysler seeks to rebound from its 2009 bankruptcy. He recently told some of his staffers to go to the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas -- and then take a few days off to see the Hoover Dam, breathe the desert air and unwind.
A new can-do attitude has grown up in a company that nearly died, he said. That's in sharp contrast to the gallows humor that had employees, during the company's darker days, speculating that Chrysler's headquarters building in Auburn Hills, Mich. would work well as a shopping mall. Such pessimism has faded under Fiat management, he said.
Said Gilles: “You just can't tell us it can't be done any more.”