Even as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles looks to expand its valuable Jeep brand worldwide, a high-ranking executive from the the newly unified automaker said Tuesday the company remains committed to the brand’s importance in Toledo and its history here.
“We recognize Toledo is the spiritual home of the Jeep,” said Mauro Pino, Chrysler Group LLC’s vice president of NAFTA Manufacturing and World Class Manufacturing.
Mr. Pino, a native of Italy, spoke at The Toledo Club as a special guest for the week’s ongoing Italian Business Forum.
Jeep has had a long and at times tumultuous history since being created in Toledo in 1941 as an all-purpose military vehicle. Through the years, the brand has had multiple owners, including some that didn’t seem to understand the brand, what it stood for, and what its opportunities could be.
Mr. Pino, a longtime Fiat employee, came to Toledo in 2010 to take over as plant manager of Chrysler Group’s Toledo Assembly complex. He spent two years there before being promoted to his current position.
Before coming to Toledo, Mr. Pino recalled being told the Toledo Assembly complex was the company’s worst manufacturing site.
“Yet four years later,” Mr. Pino said, “I can stand in front of you and tell you the Toledo Assembly complex has the best work force in Chrysler and this plays a huge role in our success story at Chrysler.”
Under his watch, Chrysler pledged a half-billion-dollar investment to upgrade and modernize the plant. Since that time, Chrysler has hired 2,500 new employees.
The plant’s 4,200 workers now build 1,900 sport utility vehicles a day and are on track to build more than 500,000 Jeeps this year, Mr. Pino said Tuesday. That would make the Toledo plant one of the highest producing vehicle-assembly plants in North America.
“I would tell you, he’s one of the key pieces that saved this city,” Joseph H. Zerbey IV, the president and general manager of The Blade, said in introducing Mr. Pino. The Blade sponsored Tuesday night’s dinner.
Last week, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles presented a five-year plan that includes a goal of expanding worldwide Jeep sales to 1.9 million units in 2018 from a projected record of 1 million this year.
Much of that growth is to come from growing the brand outside North America, including by establishing local production of Jeep in countries such as Brazil and China, where SUV sales are expected to boom in the coming years.
In spite of that international focus, the company is forecasting sales of 800,000 Jeeps in North America by 2018, 44 percent more than it sold last year.
“Our Toledo Assembly complex will play a key role in reaching this milestone,” Mr. Pino said.
He also repeated FCA chief executive Sergio Marchionne’s promise that the Wrangler will never be built outside Toledo so long as he is in charge. Incidentally, Mr. Marchionne said last week that he plans to see the company’s five-year plan through, meaning a change in leadership isn’t expected until at least 2019.
About 75 guests were on hand to hear Mr. Pino speak. He spoke highly of Toledo’s work force and especially of the men and women he leads at Chrysler.
Though the plant once ranked poorly, he said the work force was very strong.
“When I landed in that plant, I saw people were just disappointed,” he said in response to a question. “They were the best work force we had, but they were just disappointed from so many ownership changes.”
The plant now ranks among the top in the company’s World Class Manufacturing measures, something brought to Chrysler by Fiat that looks to boost productivity, eliminate waste, and integrate the entire work force into efforts to better the plant.
He also spoke of Chrysler and Fiat’s commitment to Toledo in their hiring efforts. Mr. Pino said that more than two-thirds of new hires ahead of the Jeep Cherokee launch were locals. Additionally, half the hires for temporary part-time work aimed at getting regular workers more time off without sacrificing production have been local.
For the Wrangler, workers have been putting in regular overtime and working through planned holiday and summer shutdowns to squeeze every last vehicle out of the plant, which is well beyond original capacity.
“Our biggest issue with the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited is figuring out how to build more of them here in Toledo,” Mr. Pino said.