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Fiat outlines four year business plan, CEO says he plans to step down

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Fiat SpA chief executive Sergio Marchionne laid out an ambitious set of four-year targets on Thursday aimed at propelling the newly revitalized company toward capturing a bigger share of the market.

The new plans will include a management reorganization that will see Marchionne step down as head of the automotive unit, which he took over in February 2005, while continuing at the helm of the group he has led back to profitability since taking over in June 2004.

By the end of 2010, Marchionne said Fiat aims to roll out 23 new vehicles and increase sales from two million vehicles to 2.8 million a year, for an 11 per cent market share in western Europe, up from the current 7.6 per cent.

Marchionne said he had drawn inspiration from Toyota Motor Corp. _ taking a cue from everything from their shop floor efficiencies to profit margins.

``Toyota is a marvel. Every time I look at them, we're impressed. We need to find a way to shorten the gap between us and them as quickly as possible,'' Marchionne told analysts at the presentation of the 2007-2010 business plan.

``There is nothing in the system that I know of that would prevent a European from achieving the margins of a Japanese company if the business is run in the same manner.''

Fiat shares closed down nearly two per cent at 14.98 euros (US$19.12) on the Milan stock exchange. Analysts said the slide partly reflected recent gains, a lack of surprises and some initial confusion over Marchionne's announcement that he was stepping down as head of the auto division.

Marchionne later assured analysts he was staying on as head of the overall group, noting that his stock option package was partly tied to his remaining on-board. He declined to discuss a successor at the auto unit, but said one would be chosen from inside the company.

``They are shooting for the stars in a way that is stunning,'' said UBS analyst Max Warburton. ``The problem is in the industry, everyone has a turnaround plan based on volume.''

But Marchionne said Fiat would succeed because its product line is consumer-driven, while competitors tended to be driven by engineering.

``The car business is a tough business. It's a business driven by emotion. We've approached this with some humility and we're basing it on a strategy of branding and our maniacal conviction that we make consumer products,'' Marchionne told a news conference after the presentation.

Among the new models to launch in the period are the new Bravo sedan, which will be introduced in January, and the relaunch of the iconic Fiat 500 compact in September. The presentation also included models not previously announced, including a crossover vehicle under the Fiat brand aimed at families in 2009.

Marchionne said Fiat could meet the new manufacturing targets with the factories they have on line, but it will require that unions agree to increasing the weekly number of shifts. He said he discussed a plan to increase efficiency on the plant floor with union leaders on the sidelines of Thursday's analyst conference and got a ``sympathetic'' response.

Marchionne has declared that the period of crisis at Italy's biggest manufacturer is over. The company has recorded four straight quarters of earnings, beginning in the last quarter of 2005, snapping a four-year string of losses.

The turnaround has been brought about through the success of its flagship compact, the Grande Punto, and industrial alliances that have helped Fiat share costs with partners and gain entry into new markets, including China and India.

By the end of 2010, Marchionne projected group revenues of 67 billion euros ($85.5 billion) and a trading profit of five billion euros ($6.4 billion) _ or five times the 2005 trading profit. The industrial group is projected to have three billion euros ($3.8 billion) in cash on hand at the end of 2010, after a cumulative dividend payout of two billion euros ($2.5 billion) in the period. Marchionne has said Fiat will resume paying dividends in 2007 _ the first since 2002.

Of the total vehicle sales targets, Marchionne said sales of Fiat-branded vehicles alone are expected to grow to 1.94 million in 2010 from about 1.41 million this year. That does not include Lancia or other brands produced by Fiat.

Citing continued strong demand for its cars, Marchionne also raised the earnings outlook for this year at the core auto unit, which generates 80 per cent of the Fiat bottom line.

Marchionne said Fiat now expects a trading profit of 275 million euros ($351 million) for 2006, up from the 250 million euros it said it expected as recently as last month.

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Fiat outlines four year business plan, CEO says he plans to step down
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