A recent shuffle of Chrysler Group's design team could be just what the company needs to effect a quick turnaround after bankruptcy, industry analysts say. The automaker has promoted three men from within to head design for its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. These freshly created positions—part of a broader restructuring effort—will report to Ralph Gilles, senior vice president of product design. The new hierarchy creates the kind of brand champions needed to usher through compelling designs, says Jim Hossack, a consultant with AutoPacific. "A vehicle without a champion has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Champions are good—and here you've got three." Chrysler
The most difficult task falls to the youngest of the three designers, Brandon Faurote, 37. As the head of Chrysler design, he will need to develop an identity for the most diffuse of the three brands, analysts say. "No one's really sure what Chrysler stands for," says John Wolkonowicz, an auto analyst with IHS Global Insight and a former design strategy consultant who worked with Ford from 1986 to 2003. "Is Chrysler a premium brand? Is it a mainstream brand? Is it for young people? Is it for old people?"
Faurote was most recently vice president of advance design, international, and color/trim. His work on the Chrysler Firepower concept, PT Cruiser and Sebring coupe provide a foundation of knowledge within the brand—something Wolkonowicz says is critical. "It's wonderful that they took people from inside the organization, because they understand what these brands are about," he says. "It would be risky to take people from outside."
Dodge has a more distinct identity than Chrysler, but new design head Joseph Dehner will need to do further honing, analysts say. "Dodge is kind of a blue-collar muscle-car brand and has a young twist to it," Wolkonowicz says. "But Dodge needs a bit more nurturing than Jeep does. It's not as clearly defined as Jeep is."
Dehner, 44, previously was vice president of design for production cars, minivans, trucks and Jeep. He worked on the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 2010 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty, 2007 Chrysler Sebring, and 2001 Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus, among others.
Mark Allen, 46, was promoted to head of Jeep design from his previous position of chief of Dodge and Jeep truck design.
Jeep has the most going for it in terms of design, analysts say. Allen's prime directive will be to preserve and evolve the iconic Jeep look that makes the Wrangler a continued sales success relative to other models in the line-up. "Don't try to make Jeep what it's not," Hossack says. "Don't be selling these little crossover SUVs that won't go over anything other than wet grass. Make a Jeep a Jeep."
Allen is very familiar with Jeep's design heritage, having worked on the 2007 Liberty and 2006 Wrangler. And he certainly has experience with trucks that can tackle more than a damp lawn, after helping craft the 2010 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty, 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 and 2008 Dodge Dakota.
Fewer Design Obstacles
Another key change to the design hierarchy implemented since Fiat assumed control of Chrysler Group is that Gilles, who oversees all of design, now reports directly to CEO Sergio Marchionne. Gilles had reported to the head of product development when Chrysler was owned by Cerebus Capital Management.
"When you have the designers report up through product development, often it's a little bit inhibiting," Hossack says. "The engineers have a little too much say and the vehicle ends up being more feasible, lower cost, and less of an engineering challenge, but sometimes it loses its spark in terms of design."
The changes made to Chrysler Group's design team appear to elevate the importance of styling within the company, and analysts agree that can be the difference between success and failure. "Chrysler is in serious trouble; they need a turnaround and they need it quickly," Hossack says. "The way you do a turnaround quickly is through focusing on style and performance."
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