ROME — Sergio Marchionne, the Italian-Canadian chief executive officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is the only car company boss who will take a swipe at Elon Musk, the founder and genius madman who turned Tesla Motors into one of the best-known auto brands on the planet in less than a decade since the launch of its first electric machine.
In a CNBC interview last autumn, Mr. Marchionne professed his love and admiration for Mr. Musk, then casually and subtly suggested there might be less to Tesla than meets the eye. He called Mr. Musk “a greater marketer” than disrupter, then dug a littler deeper: “As much as I reiterate my affection for Elon, there is nothing that Elon does that we cannot do.”
You could dismiss Mr. Marchionne’s remarks as sour grapes. Tesla, which plans to sell no more than 90,000 cars this year and has sold only somewhat more than 110,000 cars in its short history, has a market value of $30-billion (U.S.).
Mr. Marchionne’s FCA, which in 2015 produced 4.6 million vehicles, from Jeeps to Maseratis, has a value of $9.3-billion. Tesla shares are up by 33 per cent over a year; FCA shares are down by almost as much in the same period.
You would be wrong to write off Mr. Marchionne’s comments. In effect, he is saying that to bet on Tesla is to bet on it becoming a top producer in an industry that has always been infamous for long and painful periods of shabby, even gruesome, shareholder returns.
No one knows that better than Mr. Marchionne himself, who has saved two car makers, Fiat and Chrysler, from certain destruction and has been a perennial critic of the car industry’s “value-destroying addiction to capital” (his words).
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