With Fiat Chrysler NYSE listing, time to bet on Marchionne’s vision

October 13, 2014, 9:25 PM UTC
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne Speaks At The Brookings Institution
Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Fiat SpA and Chrysler Group LLC, speaks to members of the media at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., in May 2014.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg—Getty Images

The debut of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCAU) shares on the New York Stock Exchange will give U.S. investors the chance to bet on Sergio Marchionne, the company’s chief executive who has rightfully gained a reputation for overcoming the improbable.

In the spring of 2009, the future looked quite grim for Chrysler, which was on the brink of a bankruptcy filing. Along came an unlikely rescuer, Fiat. Could Marchionne, then the head of Fiat, broker the marriage of a lackluster Italian automaker to a failed U.S. automaker and create a successful merger?

According to the Wall Street adage, you can’t tie two rocks together and expect them to float.

The results, so far, speak for themselves. FCA is making money – albeit not yet enough to be sustainable – and it’s gaining market share as well as improved reviews of its performance from dealers, customers and analysts. That’s what late nights, weekends and grueling effort, led by the CEO, has achieved. In an industry with few magicians, Marchionne has proven himself an automotive David Copperfield.

Richard Hilgert, a Morningstar analyst, in September issued a report on the recapitalized FCA and awarded it five out of five stars, its highest rating. As Hilgert explained, the rating didn’t necessarily reflect the likelihood of FCA’s eventual success and stability, but rather the exaggerated skepticism by other financial analysts. At the prices shares have been selling in comparison to their fair value, he says, the investment rating is high. Investors, however, must take into account that automaking is highly competitive, and FCA is carrying more than an average amount of debt.

“This isn’t an investment for the faint-hearted,” he said.

Marchionne, appearing at the opening of a new Chrysler dealership in Farmington Hills, Michigan on Friday evening, said he believes that FCA is competitive, from an investment perspective, to General Motors (GM) or Ford Motor (F).

With 1.6 billion shares outstanding, and the stock trading just shy of its opening price of $9 a share, the market valued FCA at about $14.5 billion – compared with a market capitalization of $53 billion for Ford and $48 billion for GM.

Ah, but what is the up side of FCA? If Marchionne is able to meet his goal of growing vehicle sales worldwide to 7 million worldwide by 2018 from 4.4 million in 2013, with profit at about $6 billion – the shares presumably would be worth much more than today.

Marchionne is planning to flood the globe with Jeeps of all sizes and flavors, taking advantage of the strongest brand his company owns. He will make Ram pickups even more competitive to pickups from GM and Ford than they’ve been in the U.S., while protecting the company’s big minivan franchise. The Alfa Romeo luxury franchise is just getting off the ground. And he probably has a few more cards hidden up his sleeve.

The FCA chief executive already has accomplished a primary goal of turning a U.S. automaker and an Italy-centric one into a global contender. But he needs capital to go further. Whether he can achieve FCA’s very aggressive goals depend a great deal on whether a $9 stock looks expensive to investors – or cheap.