Blog: Dave LeggettChrysler, Batman and Johnny Knoxville

Dave Leggett | 1 May 2009

A couple of fairly absurd analogies have popped into my head. Everyone's at it (one of yesterday's best: 'Chrysler is the canary in the bankruptcy mine') so I may as well join in.

Let me say at the outset that I most certainly wish all at Chrysler the very best of luck in turning the situation around. At least there's some degree of certainty injected into the proceedings now.

But I was struck by something when I watched Obama on TV yesterday. I think it was the tone of what he said and the way the press conference appeared to be set up. For me, it looked like Gotham City with Commissioner Gordon delivering the address (I'm talking Batman the 1960s TV series rather than the Hollywood flicks that followed much later). It looked and sounded a little surreal and there was a slightly preachy attitude coming across from Obama.

All politicians do it, but Obama condensed things so that it sounded like an epic battle between good and evil. The good citizens of Gotham City could sleep soundly in their beds and all would eventually be well. Is going into Chapter 11 a sign of weakness? No! (It's not exactly a sign of resounding success though is it?)

The bad guys from the dark side were the nasty hedgies (boo, hiss) who wouldn't do the deal everyone else signed up too. Now, they'll get what's coming! Obama may not have said that, but he may has well have done. My imagination went walkabout and I was seeing one of those terrible mass brawls with henchmen and the low production value starburst graphics from the Batman TV show: KAPOW! SOCK! BIFF! Batman gets it sorted.

If Obama is Commissioner Gordon, who is Batman? Sergio Marchionne, of course. Robin? Whoever, from Fiat, he has as his right-hand man heading the team of Fiat managers who will be over in earnest soon. Task force leader Steven Rattner? He's slightly enigmatic and his very appointment is still a mystery to some. He's The Riddler, perhaps, actually on the same side as his hedgie chums. The Joker? That has to be Jim Press.

Things then took a slightly disturbing turn. I recalled the Catwoman character. Besides her rather impactful appearance (she impressed me when I was ten) she stood out as a complex baddie. Not an out and out baddie, she had a good side at times. The good and the bad were perhaps in conflict and occasionally her ambivalence towards doing bad stuff shone through. Anyone spring to mind? Bob Nardelli. But I don't want to see him in a leather cat suit thanks very much, so that's enough of that one.

And then I got to thinking about the apparent craziness of it all. The odds are stacked up quite high against this thing being pulled off. It almost defies conventional wisdom. It's brave. Chrysler doesn't make cars that Americans want to buy in big enough numbers and the gamble is that Fiat can inject some expertise and help it make cars that Americans and others will want to buy.

But that doesn't kick in for a while. There's a collapsed market right now to contend with along with the bad PR that inevitably comes with that word 'bankruptcy'. Even without headwinds, this turnaround is a very big ask. It's doable, but not easy to do.

Hasn't Fiat got enough problems of its own? Is this, as someone said to me this week, an intentional distraction from those?

I was reminded of a gang of guys who do extreme stuff that sane people wouldn't attempt: the crypto-anarchist entertainers that go under the brand name 'Jackass'. Obama is perhaps Johnny Knoxville – leader of the gang and chief orchestrator of the stunts. The guy who feels no pain as he staples his scrotum to the desk or paper cuts sensitive parts of his body? That's Marchionne. Nardelli? The 'Wee-Man' eager to get involved and please his friends.

Enough already. But the Jackass guys do at least deliver. They achieve exceptional things and they cross boundaries  - of taste and danger - that most of us would steer clear of. But there's a thrill in watching them succeed. Just as there is a thrill in watching someone in business pull off something truly exceptional.

Are there parallels between Renault, Nissan and Ghosn in the late '90s on one hand, and Fiat, Chrysler and Marchionne today on the other? Yes, there are clearly some. But there are some big differences, too. We won't know for a while yet if this new alliance will really fly. History is littered with those that don't and some that do.

But once again, good luck to all involved with Chrysler.

PS Talking of Ghosn, I wonder how things are going with AvtoVAZ...  

US: Chrysler to file for Chapter 11


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