The Arese merry-go-round has a fresh face in new CEO, Tim Kuniskis. Will he enjoy better fortune than his predecessors, or will it simply be more of the same?
Who’d take on a basket-case like Alfa Romeo? A marque with almost boundless potential for greatness, yet equally one with an unimpeachable aptitude for tragi-comic reversals of fortune. A state of affairs which is rooted in successive management failures – from those amid the semi-state Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale who oversaw Alfa’s affairs until 1987 and subsequently, the individuals Fiat Auto appointed to guide its fortunes.
Not that all must bear equal blame. As recounted on these pages, some managers arrived at Arese with the skill, the enthusiasm and the track record, yet could not make their case to Fiat’s masters or successfully navigate the Curia-like corridors of power in Turin. So to a historic failure to manage, one must also add the scourge of politics.
The sheer number of Alfa Romeo CEO’s since the 1990’s seems as bewildering to the casual reader as it must have been for Arese’s employees, because as with any revolving door scenario, getting decisions made at all is often as difficult as making them well. So it’s dispiriting to note that even now, some traditions remain alive and well.
Looking at the time-line from an immediate post-millennial perspective, Alfa Romeo was lead by Daniele Bandiera. Allegedly sacked in 2004 for failing to meet targets, he was replaced by former BMW M-Division chief, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell. A little over a year later, before he could make any meaningful contribution, his Alfa remit was summarily handed to Antonio Baravelle, who himself abruptly resigned and left the motor industry in 2007. His place was taken by former marketing chief, Luca de Meo who defected two years later for the VW group.
Keeping up? Good. De Meo was succeeded by Harald Wester in 2010, a long-time Fiat exec who oversaw the development of the Giulia and Stelvio models, before being shunted sideways in a 2016 FCA reshuffle. His replacement was Reid Bigland, the Head of US sales for the FCA Group, a role he continued to lead alongside his Alfa and Maserati remit. This was the state of affairs until earlier this year when Bigland’s purview was downsized with the Italian brand responsibilities being given to former Dodge CEO, Tim Kuniskis. And so the merry go round spins.
With FCA now a multinational business, albeit one with a marked US focus and accent, Italians no longer direct the course of some of their most storied names. Does this matter? Of course not, the only thing that matters is competence – that, and clarity of purpose. One which assumes those who lead Alfa Romeo understand the marque, have a robust strategy for the business and are prepared to agitate for the investment it requires to be competitive.
What a revolving door policy tends to engender however, is a culture where those who assume the top positions are more akin to government ministers, with limited time to get on top of their brief and painfully aware that short-term gains are what is required to keep them in an upward trajectory within the organisation. Brand fealty is for the birds.
How much time Kuniskis will have in his current role is currently anyone’s guess and given the current state of affairs for both Alfa and Maserati, a viable strategy for both; one which isn’t likely to be chopped and changed on the whim of a Chairman more interested in securing his legacy, is vital if they are to prosper.
Furthermore, the requirements for both marques are subtly different, yet both are vying for the same finite pot of investment funding. So is it logical or even practicable for one man to successfully and impartially manage both nameplates?
Given this state of affairs, what is to be done? Can Kuniskis not only get a grip on Alfa Romeo, but propel it towards being a sustainable (and heaven help us), profitable car business? Does he have the will and the managerial nous to convince his mercurial boss that the only way for Alfa to succeed is for it to be adequately funded and for radical changes in ethos, execution, customer care and product to take place.
It seems unlikely. FCA’s leader has broader vistas and larger mountains to conquer. Avowed to eliminate nearly $3 billion of the carmaker’s debt burden by June, Marchionne’s goal is to go out with a bang. Speculation has reignited that he’s working on a merger deal with another automaker, with some analysts even speculating that Ford could ultimately succumb to Sergio’s woolly embrace. Now that really would be ironic, Alanis.
There are of course those who believe Marchionne’s intention had always been to offload Alfa Romeo; the idea being to rush the Giulia and Stelvio into production, and with volumes climbing rapidly, make a quick sale to Dr. Piëch at a hefty premium. Then came VW’s diesel-related schisms and China’s nosedive. Timing after all being as important as good fortune.
Wild speculation of course, but with Sergio, one can never be certain of anything. Even his much signposted departure to take up knitting or whatever superannuated automotive moguls do in their retirement is open to question with some commentators suggesting last week that he won’t relinquish the tiller at all.
One thing upon which we can be reasonably confident however is that a deal of some nature will be struck. Marchionne will not rest (or depart) until one has been achieved.
For Kuniskis, the future appears both uncertain, yet equally clear. Most likely another disposable acolyte who will continue Alfa Romeo’s precarious holding pattern until the deal of the century is struck by the Italo-Canadian maestro. Meanwhile, the seasons go round and while the painted ponies rise and fall, the fabled Biscione remains captive on the carousel.