We had a chance to spend some time with Chrysler Brand CEO Al Gardner on Friday night, so we peppered him with questions about the brand, his history in Boston, what he drives and where Chrysler might be headed in the future.
You typically get two personality types in automotive industry CEOs: Driven Type A guys who fly their own jets or humorless number-crunchers who would rather pull their own teeth than carry on a fun conversation.
Alastair “Al” Gardner is the exception to both of those. He’s driven, obviously. You don’t get to be CEO of a car brand by goofing around. But he’s a genuinely nice person and quick to smile, with a self-depricating wit, something that’s as rare in the C-Level as a bus pass. He’s the increasingly rare automotive industry executive that started with a company at the entry level and steadily worked his way up the ladder.
He spent the first 18 years of his life in his native Britain, and his accent is still there, despite being Americanized by spending decades in the United States. He came to this country just as he was about to enter college.
His father had taken a job with Data General, one of the earliest minicomputer companies, founded in the 1960s in Westborough, Massachusetts by former employees of Digital Equipment Corporation. He presented his teenage son Al with a proposition: Live in Britain and pay for college on his own, or come to the United States and go to college on dad’s dime. He opted for the latter.
Gardner went to Tufts University where he graduated with a degree in history. He joined the Chrysler Corporation as a District Manager Trainee immediately after college, and he’s worked for the company ever since. He spent time as the Director of the Southeast Business Center, responsible for overseeing FCA US dealerships in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Today, he has full responsibility for the Chrysler Brand.
BestRide: Chrysler is making strides in overall quality, as evidenced by the recognition this week. We’ve seen a lot of cars get there and then fall off quickly. How do you maintain it going forward?
Al Gardner: “Last week J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey (IQS) rankings recognized the new 2015 Chrysler 300 as the #1 car in the Large Car segment – beating out tough competition from Toyota, Chevy, Ford & Nissan while Chrysler Town & Country was named the #2 vehicle in the Minivan segment just behind the Nissan Quest but ahead of both the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna for the 3rd year in a row.
We are delighted and proud to receive this recognition from J.D. Power and more importantly, our owners. It takes discipline and focus to maintain this level of quality and though we may not always be perfect, the management team at FCA is determined to build world class vehicles that match or best our competition.
We recognize that quality and reliability are key to customer satisfaction, long-term owner loyalty and success in this business and we are focused on building great vehicles by sweating the details to ensure that our owners get everything they expect and more. We do this by investing in our plants and our people. A recent example of that is the $1Billion investment in Sterling Heights (Mich.) assembly plant that builds the all-new Chrysler 200. The investment included new from the ground up, state-of-the-art paint and body shops as well as upgrades to the assembly line. In addition to investing in our people and our facilities, the company has instilled the principles of World Class Manufacturing (WCM) – FCA’s World Class Manufacturing process in all of our manufacturing facilities.”
BestRide: Lincoln showed the Continental Concept. Cadillac seems to want to be Mercedes. Without talking too specifically about future product, is Chrysler satisfied competing in a more reasonably priced arena, or is there thought to building a flagship in the future?
Al Gardner: “At Chrysler, we believe that if you work hard and are successful, you deserve to be rewarded with a great car that you can afford.
We built the new 2015 Chrysler 300 to be the flagship of the Chrysler Brand line with a model for virtually every consumer interested in a large car. Whether a customer chooses the more performance driven 300S,the more premium 300C or the top-of-the-line 300C Platinum, customers would get all the luxury experience that they deserved but would not have to pay exorbitant prices for them.
That means our top of the line 300C Platinum loaded up with features a premium customer desires including a spectacular Poltrona Frau leather interior, real wood interior accents, a full 8.4″ touch screen command center including navigation, satellite radio, Harmon Kardon amplifier & speakers, 80 available safety & security features along with a 300 hp 3.6L V6 engine mated to an 8 speed automatic transmission with 31 mpg…all of this for $42,445 MSRP – significantly below a comparably equipped competitive vehicle….and that’s why we’ve gained 1.2 points of market share this year in the large car segment. It’s a simple formula; build a great car and price it fairly where people can afford it!”
BestRide: What are you driving now?
Al Gardner: “The new 2015 Chrysler 300S – what else? [His car is in the photo below]
It’s a fabulous car – There is nothing better than a big bold American rear wheel drive sedan with a 5.7L Hemi V8. It’s incredibly comfortable, it’s fun to drive, it’s elegantly appointed on the inside, sporty on the outside with 20” wheels, side sills and a rear spoiler and has more safety features than any other large car in the segment….and it sounds great too, just like a big V8 should!
Of course I think the guys played with my car a little. They tell me they added a Mopar Stage 1 kit that adds a Cat-back exhaust and an adjustment to the PCM that now produces over 400 hp! It’s quite a machine!”
BestRide: You’ve been with Chrysler since the time the K platform was still going strong. How is the atmosphere at Chrysler now versus those days, and when Mercedes was in the picture?
“It’s been an interesting ride. Since the merger of Fiat & Chrysler and under the leadership of Sergio Marchionne, investment in our products is back and the creativity and ability to challenge the industry norms are welcomed. That has allowed us to build spectacular vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Ram Light Duty truck that gets 29 mpg highway fuel economy, the all new Chrysler 200 sedan that is the fast growing mid-size car in the marketplace today along with vehicles like the Challenger Hellcat and Jeep Cherokee SUV that are taking the market by storm.
Chrysler under Lee Iacocca was a company that moved fast & was extremely creative. Back in the 1980’s we were 160,000 employees selling 4 Brands (Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge (including Ram) & Mopar) and sold 2.0M units a year mostly in the US. Today we are bigger; 228,000 employees worldwide with 13 Brands (CJDR, Mopar, SRT, Fiat, Fiat Commercial, Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati & Ferrari) who sold 4.6M units worldwide last year and is the [seventh largest] automotive manufacturer in the world.
We are just as creative, have less layers of management, are far more disciplined and better equipped to take on the competition both financial & structurally and are driven by a leadership team under Mr. Marchionne that is focused on driving long-term results while balancing long-term sustainability.
The merger with Daimler (Mercedes) that lead to the buy-out by Cerberus were hard times at Chrysler where investment in the Brand was limited and our results showed it.
Today as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) the results reflect the emphasis on great product and disciplined investment. Last year our sales were up 16% year-over-year in a market that was up 6%. Results so far this year are no different – we just finished July with our 63rd month of consecutive year-over year sales growth.
You’re a Boston guy. How has the market in New England changed since you started with the brand in 1986?
New England is a very important market for not only the Chrysler brand but for our whole company. It has always been a very competitive marketplace but it is even more so now.
Back in 1986 there was no such thing as the internet and the ability to shop for and buy cars & trucks on line, the Korean manufacturers (Kia & Hyundai) were only just starting to enter the US market and their products were not that competitive (Hyundai had just launched the original Excel) and GM had a 35% market share.
Today, GM has roughly 13% of the New England market, Hyundai & Kia have expanded to a combined 7%, there are more products from more manufacturers for customers to choose from with more new vehicles launching every year and the amount of information that you can find on line before you ever have to go in to a dealership is overwhelming.
All of this is great for car buyers as competition and knowledge will always drive down pricing while the products have never been better.
The good news for us is that FCA (Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep & Ram) has increased market share to 11% in the Northeast – ahead of Ford, Chevy, Nissan & VW and we have grown every year consistently for the past 6 years.
This means our new products are exciting customers and meeting their needs, while our dealership network is taking care of our owners and prospective customers and owner loyalty & service retention has never been higher. The combination of great products and great people is winning the fight…but we have a long way to go.
As good as the new 200 sedan (+147% vs. last year), new Jeep Cherokee 4×4 (+30% vs. 2014 CY) and new Jeep Renegade that just recently launched, we are excited about the new products that we will unveil over the next 12 months and expect to continue to win the hearts and minds of New England customers for the years to come.