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4 Things Chrysler Must Do to Survive

Rick Newman
The Exchange

When General Motors (GM) conducted an initial public offering in 2010, it was a triumphant return to financial markets for a wounded giant humbled by bankruptcy proceedings.

If Chrysler ever goes public, there will be less to celebrate. The No. 3 U.S. automaker recently filed for an IPO, but that’s not the preferred path to success for this company. The filing stems from a dispute over the convoluted ownership structure Chrysler ended up with following its own 2009 bankruptcy and federal bailout, and could actually threaten to sink the company if it occurs. Meanwhile, Chrysler’s recovery from bankruptcy hasn’t been as robust as GM’s, and its product lineup is still behind the competition. Here are four things Chrysler must do to survive:

Get its ownership straightened out. Italy’s Fiat, which has purchased a majority stake in Chrysler as part of the 2009 bailout, wants to own the automaker outright and fully merge the European and U.S. operations. Given the global scale of big automakers these days, that’s probably essential for Chrysler to compete with major players such as GM, Ford (F), Toyota and Volkswagen.

The catch is that an autoworkers’ trust still owns 41.5% of the company, a legacy of bankruptcy meant to provide a way to finance health care for thousands of Chrysler retirees. The trust is willing to sell to Fiat, except the two sides can’t agree on a value for the company and a fair price for the trust’s share.

An IPO would establish Chrysler’s value but it would also dilute Fiat’s control and perhaps even lead it to bow out of Chrysler altogether. So the best outcome for Chrysler may be an IPO process that goes far enough to indicate a likely market price for the shares — but gets canceled in favor of a full Fiat purchase of the trust’s stake. If an IPO does occur, Chrysler could find itself in the same danger zone it has been in before, with a global footprint too small to minimize costs and optimize profits.

Roll out more models. Since emerging from bankruptcy, Chrysler has introduced some terrific new models, such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee crossover and the Ram pickup. It simply needs more of them. Chrysler’s new product pipeline was nearly empty when the company entered bankruptcy, and like GM, Chrysler had no choice but to slow the development of new models as it stripped out costs and regained its footing. The company has started to catch up but still lags virtually all big competitors in the pace of new introductions.

Rationalize its brands. As a corporation, Chrysler has four major brands: the Chrysler division, Dodge, Jeep and Ram. Then there’s Fiat, which is sort of like a partner brand at the moment, and Alfa Romeo, which will arrive at U.S. dealers late this year or early next. Altogether, it’s a sprawling portfolio. GM, which is far larger than Chrysler, has four brands. Toyota has three. Most other big carmakers have two.

Jeep is a strong brand and Dodge has emerged as the company’s "everyman" division, similar to Chevrolet. The Chrysler division, however, has withered to just three vehicles — the 200 and 300 sedans, and the Town & Country minivan — which is barely enough to justify a showroom. The old concept of spit-shining Chryslers and hawking them as luxury cars doesn’t work anymore. If the parent company didn’t carry the same name, the whole division would probably be gone, a la Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury. This branding conundrum is one problem the company has said little about. Perhaps a full Fiat buyout would give the company room to change its corporate identity.

Improve quality. Chrysler vehicles still score poorly in quality rankings. Dodge and Jeep occupy the bottom two spots in Consumer Reports’ latest automaker rankings, with Chrysler fifth from last. The three brands score a bit better in the J.D. Power quality rankings but are still mediocre at best. As the company rolls out new models and retires old ones, quality ought to improve. But competitors will keep getting better, too.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.