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Fiat Chrysler CEO certain that the company can survive tech disruption

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Fiat unveiled the Centoventi at the 89th Geneva International Motor Show last month. The electric car can be fully customised by its owner and could be Fiat's answer to urban-mobility services like ride-hailing services.

Milan

FIAT Chrysler Automobiles is a "house of brands" and that ensures it will be one of the few traditional automakers to survive the disruption the car industry is facing from the rise of electric and self-driving cars, says its chief executive officer Mike Manley.

His vision, like that of his iconic predecessor Sergio Marchionne, is based on the view that distinctive brands such as Jeep, Alfa Romeo and Maserati give the Italian-American company an advantage over mass-volume producers.

Mr Manley, 55, who succeeded Mr Marchionne last July, is under pressure to deliver a turnaround of the car-maker's unprofitable Asia business and revamp its European one, amid massive investments needed to guide Fiat-Chrysler into the era of self-driving electric cars and new mobility services.

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He said in an interview last month at the company's Turin headquarters for a new biography of Mr Marchionne, said he was "100 per cent sure" that Fiat Chrysler would be able to survive because "we are fundamentally a house of brands".

In his last sit-down interview in January 2018 at his mansion in Michigan, Mr Marchionne had predicted that carmakers had less than a decade to reinvent themselves or risk becoming commodities amid a seismic shift in how vehicles are powered, driven and purchased.

The industry will divide into segments, with premium brands managing to hold onto their cachet, while mere people-transporters struggle to cope with the onslaught from disruptors like Tesla Inc and Google's Waymo, Mr Marchionne said at the time. He warned that the namesake Fiat brand is the one more at risk of being "commoditised" within the company's portfolio of products.

But Mr Manley said in the interview that he believes the Fiat brand has a future, citing the success of its 500 subcompact, which posted record deliveries after a decade on the market.

Pietro Gorlier, who leads Fiat Chrysler in Europe, echoed this outlook in a separate interview for the book. He sees the Italian brand having a bright future in Europe with its 500 family, which also includes the 500X SUV, and by developing the "concept of mobility".

At the Geneva car show last month, Fiat unveiled the Centoventi prototype, a battery-powered electric car that can be fully customised by clients and could be Fiat's answer for urban-mobility services like robo-taxis or ride-hailing services.

Mr Manley has signalled lately that Fiat Chrysler is open to look into cooperating or even merging with other carmakers. Fresh talks with Peugeot have begun for joint investments, people familiar with the matter have said. Asked about this, Mr Manley declined to comment.

The Fiat Chrysler CEO spoke in a joint interview with chief financial officer Richard Palmer for the book, Sergio Marchionne, which will be published April 30 in Italian by Sperling & Kupfer. The book reveals that Mr Palmer and Mr Manley were the two candidates whose names were submitted to the board of directors last July 21, after it became clear to Fiat Chrysler chairman John Elkann that Mr Marchionne was never going to come back after surgery.

Mr Palmer took himself out of the race, clearing the way for Mr Elkann to propose Mr Manley, who had led the revival at Jeep, where sales rose to more than 1.6 million in 2018 from 300,000 in 2009. Mr Palmer has declined to comment on the matter.

Mr Palmer, who stayed on as CFO and was appointed to the board, is working closely with both Mr Manley and Mr Elkann on Fiat Chrysler strategy. He also has a new responsibility for mergers and acquisitions. BLOOMBERG