Autos

The Wheelman Driving Chrysler's Big Sales


Chrysler 300

Chrysler 300

While General Motors (GM) has become the predominant symbol of Detroit’s resurgence, the most impressive comeback may actually be Chrysler’s. Since early 2010, Chrysler has registered consecutive year-on-year U.S. sales gains, a streak unmatched by any major competitor. The turnaround hasn’t been driven by dramatic redesigns, which are mostly still to come. Rather, U.S. sales head Reid Bigland has relied on no-nonsense, move-the-metal sales techniques.

A bodybuilding enthusiast born in British Columbia, Bigland, 45, took over Chrysler’s top sales job in June 2011, continuing as president of the company’s Canadian arm, which he has run since 2006. Bigland has rigorously tracked sales and inventory data and pushed dealers to use low-cost sales incentives to hit their numbers. “We don’t have a lot of airy-fairy goals at Chrysler,” says Bigland. The company maintains a list of preferred vendors that it encourages dealers to use for colorful promotions on their lots, such as the traditional flag-draped tents that signify a sale. “They have guys that had never run a tent sale in their 40-year career as a Chrysler dealer that are running tent sales,” says David Kelleher, a Pennsylvania Chrysler salesman and head of the company’s dealer council. “Reid went out to the unengaged and taught them how to be engaged.”

Chrysler’s sales incentives include a “no payments for 90 days” promotion on car leases, in which customers having trouble coming up with the $5,000 for a down payment and tax, title, and license and registration fees can opt to defer payments for three months. Chrysler forgoes some upfront financing revenue but hopes to come out ahead with expanded sales. “They’re looking at clever marketing and incentive strategies that don’t cost a lot, but they get a lot of coverage. They provide peace of mind to consumers in these more uncertain times,” says Ed Kim, a Tustin (Calif.)-based analyst for the industry researcher AutoPacific. “They’ve exceeded just about everybody’s expectations.”

Bigland and his team often ask dealers on a weekly basis for sales figures and forecasts, and increase bonuses and allocation of new vehicles for the best performers. “Past Chrysler guys used to work in two-week blocks, three-week blocks, one-month blocks. These guys work in hours,” says Kelleher. In July and August, Bigland told dealers that each sale of a Dodge Journey midsize sport-utility vehicle, one of the biggest disappointments in the Dodge lineup, would count as two sales toward their sales goals. Journey sales rose 69 percent in July and set a record in August. “You walk into his office and you do not want to talk about ‘I can’t hit my target,’ ” Austintown (Ohio) dealer Chuck Eddy says of Bigland. “That is not a good conversation to have with this guy.”

Chrysler Group sales surged 26 percent this year through August, almost double the industry’s 15 percent clip, led by the Chrysler 300 and 200 sedans and the Jeep Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicle, according to researcher Autodata. The company has added a whole point to its U.S. market share through August, second only to Toyota’s (TM) gain as it recovered from the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, and has risen to 11.4 percent. Since its year-over-year growth streak began in April 2010, Chrysler has added 2.2 percentage points of share, more than the entire BMW (BMW:GR) line. The market shares of GM and Ford Motor (F) have slid this year.

Chrysler executives have taken steps to maintain their growth streak during the carmaker’s first major design overhaul since its 2009 purchase by Fiat (FIATY). With its Jeep Liberty SUV plant shutting down last month to prepare to make a redesigned model, the company built up a stockpile at its factories so that the vehicles wouldn’t crowd dealers’ lots. Until the Liberty replacement arrives in 2013’s second quarter, Chrysler is staggering deliveries of the old model to its dealers every month and reimbursing them for interest on financing that inventory. Other forthcoming new vehicles include a Chrysler 100 compact, a redesigned 200 sedan, another small Jeep SUV, and the first two products planned for Alfa Romeo in the U.S. in almost 20 years, the 4C sports car and the Giulia sedan.

Dealers must meet growth targets to get the new models. “You are what your numbers are,” Bigland says. “We have to continue to prove ourselves every day.”

The bottom line: With a more aggressive approach and old-school tactics, Chrysler has posted year-over-year increases for 29 straight months.

Trudell is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Detroit.

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