Kuniskis Tapped to Lead Fiat North America

Brand's Chief Soave Exits Amid Distribution Difficulties

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With sales of its Fiat 500 floundering and facing production cutbacks, Chrysler Group has appointed Timothy Kuniskis as head of Fiat brand sales and marketing to replace Fiat North America head Laura Soave, who left the company to "pursue other interests," according to a press release.

Calls to Chrysler for comment were not returned.

Her departure had long been rumored, although only last week Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne hinted at a Jeep plant visit in Toledo, Ohio, with reporters that Ms. Soave's appointment to the job was in place "for the time being."

The shift comes as sales of the coupe remained well behind a company target of 50,000 units annually, reaching a figure of 15,826 through October, according to Automotive News. Distribution is at the root of Fiat's problem. Mr. Marchionne told reporters in Ohio last week that "the distribution network is probably half a year late." But there have been some marketing miscues along the way. In January, Ad Age reported that Ms. Soave had hired Impatto, a Southfield, Mich.-based boutique agency run by Michael D'Antonio to handle creative duties and event strategy. Impatto had handled some event marketing at Ford when Ms. Soave was there. But ties between the agency and Chrysler were subsequently severed. Currently, Doner is handling the brand.

Even so, marketing -- or more accurately, awareness -- does not seem to be an issue for Fiat. Its sometimes polarizing campaign with Jennifer Lopez has gotten lots of attention, both praise and some critical arguments that it is more about the performer than about the car. Just last night, Ms. Lopez danced in and around a Fiat 500 for at least two minutes during ABC's "American Music Awards," prompting many blog posts and tweets. Not all were positive; singer John Legend, in fact, tweeted: "That has to be the most shameless thing I've ever seen in a performance. I was genuinely shocked."

According to some familiar with the situation, today's move signals that Mr. Marchionne, along with worldwide brand chief Olivier Francois, were frustrated that Fiat's dealer network has not been large enough to support its sales goals. Chrysler said it would have 130 Fiat stores in place this year, but many of them reported no Fiat sales in October, Automotive News said.

"This development goes with Marchionne's managing style," said Ralph Paglia of Tier 10 Marketing in Herndon, Va. "He gives his people in charge total authority, and if he doesn't get results …"

Mr. Kuniskis joined Chrysler in 1992 and has held a series of positions in the automaker's business center operations and marketing organization. He was head of Chrysler brand-product marketing and joined Fiat brand this summer as Chrysler sought to beef up its marketing and dealership team. Among his responsibilities was overseeing product marketing to help Fiat build its product plan. "He's someone that Olivier really trusts and values in his ability to get things done," said a person close to the situation.

Ms. Soave, who previously worked for Ford and Volkswagen, was chosen to bring back the Italian brand to the U.S., where it had been absent for nearly three decades. Speculation was that if it became a rousing success, Mr. Marchionne might follow up by bringing Alfa Romeo, another Fiat brand, to the states.

Recently Fiat has initiated a $500 rebate, introduced a convertible version, and is planning to bring a sportier Abarth model to the States next spring.


Rupal Parekh and Automotive News contributed to this story.

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