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Manley role at Fiat Chrysler a turning point for carmaker

TOM KRISHER
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In this photo taken on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, Mike Manley, head of Jeep Brand, introduces the 2019 Jeep Cherokee during the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit. Fiat Chrysler's board recommends Jeep executive Mike Manley to replace seriously ill CEO Sergio Marchionne, Saturday, July 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The nomination of Mike Manley as CEO of Fiat Chrysler marks a turning point for the carmaker, putting a brand with historic Italian roots in the hands of someone with no ties to Italy — a Brit who showed his mettle by growing the quintessentially American Jeep into a global brand.

Manley has been one of the closest collaborators with the company's longtime leader Sergio Marchionne and had been seen as a possible successor since Marchionne announced in January that he planned to step down next year. Those plans were pushed up Saturday after Marchionne's health deteriorated following surgery.

The 54-year-old Manley also headed the Ram truck brand, which together with Jeep have been the focus of Fiat Chrysler's growth strategy in North America, whose market represents two-thirds of Fiat Chrysler's earnings.

"The success of the Jeep brand under Mike Manley and his global background make him the smart choice to be the new head of FCA," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "His international experience in growing that brand will play a key role as he applies those techniques to all of the Fiat Chrysler divisions."

Manley had joined the company in 2000. He took over management of the Jeep brand in 2009, just after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy protection funded by the U.S. government. At the time, the all-SUV Jeep mainly was a U.S. brand, where sales languished at around 232,000 for the year.

By 2017, though, sales had nearly quadrupled to more than 828,000 as Americans snapped up all-wheel-drive SUVs. The brand also grew internationally, especially in China, under Manley, and has a difficult goal of hitting 2 million in sales worldwide this year.

Manley stayed at the company through tumultuous times when other executives were ousted, and his roles were expanded because he performed, said Autotrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs.

"He's low-key and the opposite of Sergio," she said. "He just went about his business."

Krebs attended Fiat Chrysler's five-year business plan unveiling in Italy earlier this year. "A large part of it was the Mike Manley show," Krebs said. "My sense is he helped develop the plan."

Krebs doesn't see any major changes in the way FCA is run under Manley, but says the company does face challenges as the U.S. auto market cools down a bit after record sales.

The company also will have to deal with possible tariffs imposed on vehicles and parts both by the U.S. and in retaliation from other countries. Fiat Chrysler exports Jeeps and other vehicles from the U.S., and it also imports some of its models from Italy and Mexico, especially the growing Alfa Romeo sport luxury brand, she said.

Manley has a master's degree in business administration from Ashridge Management College. He was born in Edenbridge, Great Britain.