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CEO wants world to Dodge brand 'alive and well'

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010

DETROIT -- Ralph Gilles is on the hot seat.

Chrysler's U.S. market share fell to 8.9 percent last year from 11 percent in 2008.

And Gilles, the 39-year-old head of Chrysler design and CEO of its Dodge brand, must try to reverse that slide with a lineup that won't look much different on the outside until the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a new Chrysler 300, the diminutive Fiat 500 and an unnamed seven-passenger crossover launch in late 2010 and early in 2011.

So until later this year, he will be orchestrating an interior makeover of most models and repackaging options such as power windows, cruise control and air-conditioning as standard equipment.

A refurbished Dodge Caliber is to reach showrooms by the end of January. An upgraded Journey crossover, Charger, Challenger and Caravan minivan will soon follow.

"The challenge is to awaken ourselves and to let the world know we are alive and well," Gilles said Wednesday in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. "We underestimated how quiet we had been."

To convey that message, Dodge has selected Wieden & Kennedy, a Portland, Ore., ad agency known for its work with Nike sports apparel and Levi Strauss.

No one has questioned Gilles' creative talent, but he must translate his artistic prowess into a consistent and crisp vision of Dodge cars.

"Cars that make you feel good, that are niche-like in their demeanor, but have mass appeal," said the 39-year-old when asked to define Dodge in 25 words or less.

From instilling a richer feel inside current models to sculpting breakthrough designs on Chrysler's future vehicles, Gilles is a point person in Chrysler's fledgling turnaround. He knows there won't be any more second chances.

Six months out of bankruptcy, Chrysler's four brands are struggling to post their first year-over-year monthly sales improvement since early 2008. December sales still ran 4 percent below their weak year-ago level, while most other competitors reported gains.

Gilles, who grew up in Montreal and has a fine arts degree from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a master's in business administration from Michigan State, said he tries to block out the media noise to stay focused on a plan he insists will succeed, although he acknowledges the change will take time.

"The one thing we do best in design is to think two, three, five, even 10 years out," Gilles said. "I'm trying to bring that thinking to the Dodge brand."

Gilles, who had a major role in the design of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Magnum and Viper, is learning to look at the business through dealers' eyes.

Until early November, dealers were reeling from Chrysler's decision to terminate franchises of 789 of their colleagues and wondering what the product plan looked like. Gilles said he and his three fellow brand CEOs -- Chrysler's Olivier Francois, Jeep's Michael Manley and Ram Truck's Fred Diaz -- met with dealers over a four-day period after the media rollout of Chrysler's five-year plan.

"They were starving for information," Gilles said. "Many of them brought their families. This is their livelihood."

The hardest part of Gilles' assignment is to get consumers to think differently about Dodge -- and the other three brands -- without simply discounting vehicles. In some instances, Gilles said he just needs to raise awareness of what Dodge sells.

"The Journey's a great example -- people come into the dealership and they've never heard of the car before," he said. "They come for something else and they leave with a Journey."

Sales of the midsize crossover rose 61 percent in December from a year ago. But in a market segment that likely will grow, Dodge should be able to sell more.

To reach for artistic inspiration outside his nearly 24-hour-a-day job, Gilles said he wishes he could attend this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"That industry moves so quickly. The imagination and brainpower in those companies is off the charts," said Gilles, who said he envies his 11-year-old daughter's iPhone. Chrysler protocol requires all employees to use a BlackBerry.

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