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Exclusive: Fiat Chrysler CEO explains shock resignation

Priorities: Family values are at the heart of Veronica Johns’ successful career as a car company executive – and her decision to leave.

PA who became the boss applauded: top CEO, top daughter

Fiat logo4 Nov 2014

By JOHN MELLOR

THE president and CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Australia, Veronica Johns, who has chosen to cut her career short to look after the wellbeing of her parents following the sudden illness of her father, leaves the company in very good shape.

Ms Johns decided to resign because her parents live four hours from Melbourne and working two days a week at FCA Australia headquarters and three days a week remotely looking after her parents’ welfare meant that she believed she was unable to do justice to her responsibilities.

She resolved late in August to retire and the delay in the announcement, made last Wednesday, was to allow FCA to secure her successor, Pat Dougherty, whose appointment was revealed two days later (see separate story – link below).

In an exclusive interview with GoAuto, Ms Johns said: “I just need time to sort things without constant (company) emails and midnight phone calls.

“The two days (in the office) and three days remotely is a lot of pressure. I just could not invest what I believe to be the right attention to the business any longer.

“I would never have considered taking three months sick leave or anything like that because it is not fair to the business because this business needs a leader who is 100 per cent committed and focused.”

Ms Johns has worked for Chrysler for the past 16 years – she took over the top job from Clyde Campbell in April last year – and has the relatively rare distinction of being the PA that wound up running the place.

But, she says, that was never a strategy.

“It’s funny because it was never my intention to climb the corporate ladder. I just took jobs as they came up. I just decided to have a go at this and have a go at that,” she said.

“When I fell into sales about nine years ago I just worked my way up through that as well. But it was never a plan. I never started my career thinking I wanted to be the CEO of this place. It did not happen like that.

“It turned out that I was just great at the things that I did because of the values I have carried with me right from the start and because I have been open and honest and transparent with whoever I deal with (which meant) I have been able to build and maintain excellent relationships.

“So you get to do amazing things when you are delivering amazing things. But it really just ended up happening,” she said.

Her business mantra would be a distinct factor: “Make your boss look awesome.”

Since her appointment to the director of sales role in 2010 when volume was around 10,000 units, FCA Australia has seen growth to potentially 40,000 sales this year.

This has been built off the back of strong brands – particularly Jeep, but also Chrysler, Dodge and now including Fiat and Alfa Romeo – as well as clever marketing (‘I bought a Jeep’), a strong relationship with dealers experiencing sales growth and a CEO who invests herself in the 130 people who work for her and who she treats like family.

“We have just been really fortunate that we have great people who work here who love doing amazing things. It’s a fantastic team and a real family. We really encourage everyone to buy into that,” she said.

“I know the great opportunities that I had. I had such amazing managers throughout my career that I wanted the same opportunities for everyone else.

You want to see people succeed like I have … so they can do great things.”

Ms Johns said she believed it was important to grow employees not just for success within the company but to grow them to be successful in any company they may go to.

She said that the 40,000 sales this year would be “an absolute credit to the dealer network” which she praised for buying into FCA’s sales programs in the past few years.

“I have grown up with the dealer network. It is another part of my family. They sell the cars and the relationship with the dealers has been a top priority for everyone and we are true business partners,” she said.

“We have really tried to build an honest, trusting relationship with the network. We talk a lot about the dealers and try to get our people really invested in the relationship with them because for a lot of people these things do not come naturally and potentially they are not aware of things that they are doing that are not helping our relationship thrive.

“But that is not something I planned to do, it is just the way I have done it.”

Ms Johns said a key strength of the organisation as she leaves was its constant search to be different from other car companies.

She said FCA Australia does not accept the concept of doing what others in the industry do.

“Whether it be in marketing, our relationship with the dealers, how our staff operate and our departments interact. (When other car companies) are going one way then we want to go the other way.

“That is what we are about. I don’t want to be the same as every other manufacturer. I wanted to have that point of difference. That is one of our strengths.”

Would she entertain a role again in the industry?“Definitely. I love the industry.”

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