Second-guessing Sergio Marchionne's management of Fiat has become commonplace in Italy, where he faces nearly as much criticism from detractors as the country's national soccer coach.
Many people think they could have done a better job at Fiat than Marchionne, but Giuseppe Volpato is not one of them.
"We should ask ourselves where Fiat would be today if it did not encounter Marchionne on its road," said the Venice University business school dean, who has written two books on Fiat.
Volpato said that when Marchionne joined Fiat in June 2004 it looked unlikely that the company's auto division could be saved. The most viable pre-Marchionne option was to force General Motors to take over Fiat Auto. The U.S. giant had bought 20 percent of Fiat Auto for $2.4 billion in March 2000 and was contractually obligated to buy the remaining 80 percent.
"If GM had bought Fiat, what would Fiat be today?" Volpato asked. The likely answer is closed.
Just look at what GM, which had to file for U.S. bankruptcy protection in 2009, has done to underperforming subsidiaries in the past few years. Hummer was closed. Saab was dumped. Opel/Vauxhall was nearly sold. Fiat would have been lucky to survive.
Fiat has many challenges to overcome, but Volpato said that because of Marchionne "it is still alive, kicking -- and owns Chrysler."
Fiat's guidance for this year -- consolidating its share in Chrysler's results -- calls for revenue of more than 58 billion euros, or around $81 billion at current exchange rates. The resulting trading profit -- operating profit before unusual items -- should be around $3 billion with a net profit of around $2 billion.
Undoubtedly, Fiat will take a hit from the forecast decline in European new-car sales. Production in Europe, which is mainly in Italy, will suffer. The pain, however, will not be nearly so bad as in the past because Marchionne has transformed Fiat from being a Eurocentric minicar and subcompact specialist into a more global player with a broader product portfolio and a stronger footprint in North America.
Any credible analysis of Fiat should focus on its global weaknesses -- China and Russia being the two biggest -- because discussing only its Italian activities is simply parochial.