Spring 2012
The Nautilus

Architecture alumnus Saad Chehab is a new leader at Chrysler-Fiat

Saad Chehab

There’s a new chapter under way at Chrysler, and Saad Chehab ’92 is one of the top leaders breathing new life into the company as president and CEO of Chrysler Brand, Chrysler Group, and a member of the Group Executive Council (GEC) for Fiat-Chrysler.

Chehab has an intense schedule carrying three jobs. Aside from the Chrysler Brand, he also heads Lancia Brand in Europe and Advertising for the Chrysler Group.  These responsibilities regularly take him from his home base in Michigan (Auburn Hills) to his work for Fiat Group in Turin, Italy. All the while, he makes an impassioned pitch not only for the products but also for the features.

He notes that Chrysler-Fiat’s extended range of car manufacturers—including Ferrari Maserati and Alfa Romeo—enable the automaker to put the best technologies, features and materials, such as supple Italian leather of the Ferrari, into the Chrysler 300. The new model also has radar-guided cruise control that alerts the driver and automatically adjusts speed when the car is too close to something, like another car; a voice-activated technology console for entertainment, directions and Internet; and temperature-controlled cup holders for hot or cold drinks.

“For the price, the customer gets a lot of luxury and exotic touches often found only in much more expensive cars,” he said.

Chehab thrives in Chrysler’s driven, innovative culture that embraces creativity. When he showed Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne the unusual combination of saddle (brown) leather in a tungsten gray Chrysler vehicle that he wanted to feature in a TV ad, Marchionne gave him the go-ahead to add that special color combination to the line-up. Normally, that would take about one year to do, but Chrysler’s “make it happen” culture accelerated the process. Demand for that combination is strong.

Chehab had a major role in developing the 2011 Super Bowl ad “Born of Fire,” which featured Eminem driving a Chrysler 200 through the streets of Detroit to his iconic song “Lose Yourself.” The Detroit rapper’s classic line, “This is the Motor City and this is what we do,” spoke not only of building Chrysler vehicles in Detroit but also of the irrepressible spirit of Detroiters.

The ad—the longest ever to play during the Super Bowl—was a daring appeal to help pull Chrysler out of bankruptcy. It was viewed by more than 111 million people worldwide during the Super Bowl and has more than 22 million views online. Not only was it captivating for its artistry and audacity, it captured greater market share for Chrysler 200: 700 percent in year-over-year sales.

That soaring success vaulted Chehab’s career only two years after joining Chrysler. Then came another evocative Super Bowl ad. The 2012 “It’s Halftime in America” ad featured actor Clint Eastwood telling the world how Chrysler has made a comeback and the city of Detroit is emerging from its darkest days. And, Eastwood tells us there are better times ahead for the entire country. The ad tugs at people’s emotions of pride, hope, relief and belief. And those emotions reflect well on the Chrysler brand. Sales for the 300 series are up by almost 500 percent.

Chrysler is also gaining market share in trend-setting markets like L.A. where “gritty” is cool. When Chehab is driving in a Chrysler 300, people there often give him a thumb’s up and ask him about the vehicle. “We just had a Bentley-owner Hollywood producer come in and buy a brand new 300S,” Chehab remarked.

For his role in Chrysler’s turnaround and pumping up Detroit’s image globally, Chehab was named one of two “Newsmakers of the Year” in 2012 by Crain’s Detroit Business, along with Midtown Detroit Inc. President Susan Mosey.

Chehab’s youth (44), energy and cosmopolitan background (born and raised in Beirut, college educated in Detroit and also fluent in French and Arabic) are ideally suited to his position. He has a good sense of how the convergence of design, technology and culture play into the textural elements of cars and trucks, leading to product lines that appeal to all income levels, cultures and age groups.

For instance, the automaker is now offering “Beats by Dr. Dre,” an advanced audio system. Chehab says the fit and finish of Chrysler products nowadays is second to none, and the Chrysler 300 ranks highly with Consumer Reports.

“There are two ways to get results: traditional methodology and no rules of engagement,” Chehab said. Chrysler favors the latter.

“There is no compromise, the designers, engineers and entire Chrysler team have to be convinced and love the car before we build and sell it,” Chehab noted. “We love bringing up the unexpected. It’s a really fun time to be at Chrysler today.”

Chehab’s path to the top was non-traditional. After graduating from U of D, Chehab worked at two architectural firms in Detroit. He was hired by Ford to design dealerships and rose to director of Creative Services. A spirited discussion with Marchionne in 2009—arranged by a friend at Chrysler—led to a job offer. Transitioning from designing buildings to managing a car line-up was a natural extension of his passion for integrating style and technology.

Chehab’s mentor at UDM was Bruno Leon, former dean of the School of Architecture. He took the maximum three design classes from Leon and wanted more. They would go to the Ratskeller for drinks and popcorn and talk about life/design issues. He now finds that the corporate creative culture at Chrysler, under Marchionne, uses that same tactic—kick around ideas with others and let the answer come. How do vehicles fit into people’s everyday lives? What makes people passionate about their cars?

Chehab takes his fast-paced automotive career in stride, balanced by his role as a husband and father. He met his wife Jennifer Montie (B.S., Civil Engineering ’92) on campus at Reno Hall. They have three children. The family enjoys eating at Slow’s restaurant in downtown Detroit and rooting for Detroit’s sports teams.

For a man who had trouble learning the English language as a college student—eschewing ESL classes and heading to Florida to learn from his American-speaking friends—his vocabulary about Chrysler products is luminous.

“We want to challenge not only the competition but even those customers who have not yet given us a try,” he notes. “Chrysler has had consistently daring design and now has the quality, fit and finish that will surprise anyone who test drives our cars.”

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