Imagine, you are an 18-year-old engineering student when your grandfather taps you to join the board of directors of the one of the world’s largest car companies. A decade later, just as you are about to marry a princess, your grandfather, a legendary figure, dies and you become the chairman of a company now on the brink of bankruptcy.
John Elkann doesn’t have to imagine that scenario. He lived it. And Gianni Agnelli’s grandson, who heads not only Fiat but also Ferrari, hired Sergio Marchionne as chief executive of Fiat, absorbed Chrysler as a partner, and nearly pulled off a merger with Renault.
Recently, the now 42-year-old and his princess bride and their three children made their first visit to Monterey Car Week where Elkann was scheduled to be part of a panel presentation on family legacies and preserving automotive enthusiasm during an era of revolutionary automotive technology.
However, almost immediately the event evolved into an interview of Elkann, who emerged as perhaps the most interesting person in the automotive world.
While Elkann said his focus is on future product, “I’ve been very surprised by the amount of passion about cars and the history of cars” that he had seen in Monterey, “and a number are our brands,” including Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and, or course, Ferrari.
He also noted that based on current values, he wished he’d have kept quite a few of the cars he’s owned through the years.
It was not only in Monterey that Elkann observed such passion, he said, noting that 50,000 people lined historic Woodward Avenue north of Detroit where another of his company’s brands, Dodge, sponsored a throwback street racing event.
With so many brands in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles portfolio (Ferrari has been spun off as a separate company), one of Elkann’s missions is to make sure each brand remains “distinguished and unique,” and remains true to its heritage, but also relevant in a changing world, and to do so even as technologies are shared across the marques and models, and all while meeting customer expectations in a variety of geographic regions.
For example, could a plug-in hybrid powertrain actually enhance the off-road capability of a Jeep, while also keeping it relevant in regions limiting the use of petroleum fuel? Consider, for example, the 1,000 horsepower Ferrari hybrid that’s coming, he said. With its immediate torque, electricity gets you going, and then the internal combustion engine keeps you going.
By the way, he added, of all of FCA’s brands, Jeep is the largest in global sales volume.
Another brand growing in importance is Maserati, which FCA has designated to become its challenger for Porsche as that traditional sports car brand not only adds sedans and SUVs to its lineup but as it electrifies its powertrains.
Looking toward the future of automotive technology, Elkann shared his vision of the timelines.
Electrification on a wide scale is 10 to 20 years in the future, he said, adding that hybrids and vehicles running on natural gas are also among the possible solutions to reducing emissions in the short term,
Autonomous vehicles are 20 to 25 years out, and at first such self-driving technologies will be focused on commercial vehicles, such as robotic taxis and those delivering packages from Amazon.
While you might expect such issues to weigh heavily on the mind of a young chairman, Elkann said the key to the future for his company involves people not much older than he was when his grandfather brought him aboard.
The key, he said, is “attracting talented people in their early 20s to your industry and to your company. They will determine (your success) for the next 25 years.”
And isn’t that’s what Elkann’s grandfather did nearly 25 years ago when he brought his grandson aboard?