Fiat SpA (F) plans to invest as much as 9 billion euros ($12.3 billion) on new models to end European losses in three years and revive nearly empty Italian factories, two people familiar with the matter said.
In addition to bolstering the upscale Maserati and Alfa Romeo marques with new “Made in Italy” models, the carmaker will focus the Fiat line on variants of the trendy 500 subcompact and the budget-oriented Panda small car, ditching a former best seller, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.
“It’s a brave and historic move to abandon your roots,” said Roberto Verganti, a management professor at Milan Polytechnic and the author of the 2009 book “Design-Driven Innovation.” “Going upscale with cool, high-margin 500 and Alfa models is the only possible strategy to continue building cars in Italy.”
With the timing of Fiat’s sought-after merger with Chrysler (CGC:US) Group LLC uncertain, Sergio Marchionne, who is chief executive officer of both carmakers, is under pressure to stem the Italian manufacturer’s losses in Europe. While Fiat has previously said it aims to develop about 20 new models for Europe by 2016, including eight Alfa Romeos, the company has declined to comment on a revised European strategy until April.
As part of the luxury focus for Italy, Fiat will introduce 500 and Jeep sport-utility vehicles next year as well as a convertible version of the Alfa Romeo 4C sports car, said the people. Those cars will all be made in its home country. The new Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan, designed mainly for export outside Europe, will be built in Italy by 2016, they said.
The Fiat Punto, a compact hatchback that competes with the likes of Volkswagen AG’s Polo, will be replaced by a five-door version of the 500. That mass-market model will be built in Poland to save costs and boost profit margins, the people said. A Fiat representative declined to comment on the company’s European strategy.
Auto workers in Poland are paid about one-quarter what their Italian counterparts make, according to data from German auto-industry group VDA. The Punto, which was last overhauled in 2005, accounted for 31 percent of the Fiat brand’s European sales in 2007, according to data from IHS Automotive.
The shares fell 2 cents, or 0.4 percent, to 5.42 euros at the close of trading today in Milan. The stock has gained 43 percent this year, valuing the Turin-based automaker at 6.77 billion euros.
Burdened by slumping demand in its home country and a lack of new models, Fiat has been losing market share in Europe for the past four years. The group’s deliveries in the region last year were 47 percent less than in 2009, according to data from industry group ACEA. Fiat’s European market share has slumped to 6.2 percent this year from 9.3 percent in 2009.
The sales collapse has led to operating losses of almost 2 billion euros since 2011, including 304 million euros in the first nine months of this year.
“We will utilize what we have in defense of what we have,” Marchionne said on an Oct. 30 conference call with analysts when asked about cutting capacity. “We will not be shutting down plants. We will shift our production capacity in accordance with our premium brand strategy.”
The success of the plan has implications beyond Fiat. Italy has been mired in a cycle of recessions since 2001, and a revival of production by Italy’s largest manufacturer could help stabilize the broader economy after the auto industry shed more than 30,000 jobs since 2008, according to Italian auto-industry group Anfia.
“The only way to revive the industrial sector in Italy is moving to luxury production and glorifying the ‘Made in Italy’ concept,” said Giuseppe Berta, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan.
The impact of the downturn is evident at the Mirafiori plant near Fiat’s Turin headquarters. On a bright fall day there last month, leaves swirled unimpeded across the near empty parking lot at the site, which covers about half the area of New York’s Central Park.
The plant was once an engine of Italian industrialization after World War II, bustling with as many as 50,000 workers in the 1970s. Now, only 5,500 people are employed there, and they just work a few days a month. The factory, which once churned out more than 600,000 cars a year, has built fewer than 20,000 in the first 10 months of 2013, according to the Fim Cisl union.
Fiat has furloughed many of its 30,700 production employees in Italy this year and most of those have been off work for more than five months this year, Fim Cisl said. The goal is to bring them all back by focusing on luxury Alfa Romeo and Maserati vehicles. Under the plan, Mirafiori workers will start making the Maserati Levante, the elite brand’s first SUV, by 2015.
Even the Fiom union, generally a harsh critic of Marchionne’s labor policies, stands behind the shift upscale, though it’s concerned the plan won’t be enough to save all jobs. The union expects Fiat to eventually eliminate at least one-third of the workforce at Mirafiori.
“Going upscale is the right choice and should be supported,” said Federico Bellono, head of Fiom in Turin. “Fiat should admit openly that it won’t re-hire all its workers in Italy.”
Fiat will share development with Chrysler to reduce the cost of the planned expansion, and rely on the sales network of its American unit to help with distribution of the new vehicles.
“Without Chrysler, we could have not implemented this strategy,” Fiat Chairman John Elkann said last month in Turin.
The strategy largely copies the German auto industry. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG (DAI) and Volkswagen, which owns the Audi and Porsche brands, have made upscale cars for decades to offset wages that are among the auto industry’s highest. Those cars are exported from Germany around the world.
Focusing the Fiat brand on the 500 and the Panda would free up resources for the upmarket shift, which has shown promising signs. After expanding with the Ghibli midsized sedan earlier this year, Maserati has received more than 23,000 orders this year, almost quadruple its 2012 sales of 6,200 cars.
“Fiat has seriously started to follow the right strategy for a country with no cheap labor but highly skilled workers,” said Mauro Ferrari, vice chairman of parts supplier Webasto SpA.
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