Unfamiliar surroundings

April 28, 2008
By: Tim Heston

When you make a fast-food cashier roll her eyes, you know it"s been a long day.

Unfamiliar surroundings can make me about as smooth as when I accidentally stabbed my date with the corsage pin before junior prom (yes, that did happen). I"m on the road this week, and today I drove a certain rental car for which, I"m sure, designers had to be playing some sort of cruel joke.

Picture this: I pull up to the drive-through speaker and get ready to roll down the window when, to my surprise, I see no window crank or controller. I look on the wheel, by the air and heat knobs, by the clocknothing. A curb is to my left and right, so I can"t simply pull out of the drive-through lane. And of course, as I frantically look for the window control, a car pulls up behind me. I can"t even back out. So, with all the dignity I can muster (which isn"t much at this point), I open the door, stand by the speaker, and give my order. I get back in the car, drive up to the window, get out of the car again and stand there, meekly. The cashier looks at me like I"m some sort of nut.

It"s a rental, I say, even more meekly. I can"t find the hand crank for the window. Just unfamiliar surroundings.

She rolls her eyes and hands over the junk food. I drive off and, seconds later, spot the dang window controls just above the radio. At this point, I"m steaming: The window controls have always been on the door. It"s not difficult to reach; it"s a logical place for them; why change it?

I have a feeling Sergio Marchionne would be asking the same question.

Marchionne, CEO of Italian automaker Fiat, last week announced yet another quarter representing year-over-year improvement, the company"s 13th. That"s remarkable for any carmaker today, and even more so considering Fiat"s health just four years ago. In 2004 he came to a struggling organization with a shaky managerial history, a ho-hum product, a powerful union, and loads of debt. Four years later he"s turned the ship 180 degrees.

So how did this CEO, trained in law and finance, pull off a turnaround that has eluded Detroit? Not from the car business. As this week"s Economist magazine explained, Marchionne combined an insider"s sense of how the system worked with an outsider"s vision of how badly it needed to change. In doing so he asked hard questions, and I"ve got a feeling the fact he experienced unfamiliar surroundings four years ago made those hard questions not so difficult to ask.

Soon after taking Fiat"s reins, he worked to offload debt by bringing closure to a financial deal with General Motors and paying off the banks. Then came the organizational changes. Here"s how The Economist described the transformation: Within 60 days he had slimmed Fiat"s corpulent administration to a size more suited to its modest output. He took control of the car division, installing a new breed of younger manager and introducing a culture of transparency and honesty. He gave his new team both clear targets and the support needed to hit them. Engineers were told to cut out duplication in car parts that could be easily shared across the whole range. After that initial period, the article continued, he focused on making cars that people would want to be seen driving.

Judging by the past 13 quarters, people are buying these carsand I have a feeling they can roll down the window on the first try.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314