Nielsen, 61, dealer principal for Nielsen Automotive Group in northern New Jersey, spoke with Staff Reporter Vince Bond Jr. last month about his expectations for the Gladiator, a three-row Grand Cherokee, the sales success of the Challenger and the possibility of a wide-body Charger. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing FCA dealers?
A: I think the biggest challenge we're going to face in the coming years is having capacity to service, maintain and keep these customers in house to change oil and stuff. We're on track to have a banner year at FCA if this month closes out pretty well. A lot of demand in the service bays. It's been a good year. I think it will continue into next year. The product has been great. We're on track to have a certain amount of gain this year where other manufacturers are flat or down.
You said the service bays have been busy. Is that a product of marketing and having good specials?
We're pretty consistent with Mopar and trying to keep them in house and not trying to lose them to the Pep Boys and Jiffy Lubes of the world. I think it's a lot of effort on the dealers' part to keep them in house and not go down and get their brakes done at Meineke, and then come back to us for something they're not capable of doing. We can do it all. That's a challenge to keep them in house and have enough technicians to do that.
The Gladiator was shown at the L.A. show. How do you feel about its design and overall capabilities?
I've had a lot of calls and people walking in inquiring about it. People like a niche vehicle.
Do you think the Gladiator will pull from Wrangler sales?
I don't think it will affect the Wrangler business. I think it's going to compete with the midsize pickup truck for people who want to have something different.
What's a good price for the Gladiator? The sweet spot?
The sweet spot is under $60,000. I think there is a market out there for it. People determine what it's worth. I think it will come in and come out.
Wrangler is having another record year. It's a great product, people like it, it's very versatile. When we went from two to four doors, it opened up a whole new market of people who never could buy a Wrangler because it didn't fit their family. I sell Wrangler to lawyers and teenagers. It's a great mix and we do a lot of leasing in the Northeast. They can take the roof down, or go through the snow with it. It fits in a lot of people's eyes. It's functional, rugged four-wheel-drive. It fits in all age brackets. It fits a broad base of customers.
The Wrangler's days supply has been building up in recent months. What do you think is happening there?
They don't really share those [days supply] numbers with us, the dealers. My days supply is probably a little above normal, but we built two models there for a while. The old one and the new one. We've had a couple issues with wheels and tires from the suppliers that haven't fit everybody's needs. Once spring breaks here in the Northeast with that car, they'll be begging for it again. It's just getting on track. There's been a pretty decent demand for that car. I've taken pretty much every one I could get.
We've built capacity and just need to continue to adjust to it. I don't think there's an issue for that car at all. We were building the old one and ramping up the new one, so you had a double barrel coming at you. We have a little value on the older one and, with the new one, we're just trying to get our feet wet to what the consumer wants.
Do you think the Gladiator will have a similar reception as the Hellcats?
I truly believe that. I think the first ones will be big demand for fancy [trims], a lot of equipment. I don't sell many base-model Wranglers. A lot of hardtops, a lot of equipment, navigation, leather. I think when you are in the perceived price range of the Gladiator, I think it's going to be more of a higher-end vehicle. I think you'll be trading BMW, Mercedes and European cars for the Gladiator.
FCA is going to build a three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee in a few years. Is that the right car, for the right time?
The Grand Cherokee keeps on clicking. In the Northeast, Grand Cherokee and Cherokee. Those are our two volume products. People really enjoy that car. It fits their needs. It's a great lease market for SUVs here. It's always been the top SUV here in the Northeast. It holds its own across the country.
Will that third row open it up to new customers?
Sure. It will appeal to other people that haven't considered it. If you could ever please 100 percent of the people with one car, you'd be a genius. People who love this car today might hate the new one. You have to roll with it and see how it goes. It still has a name. It's still a Jeep, it's still a Grand Cherokee.
Do you think the Fiat and Chrysler brands will survive much longer in the U.S.?
I think there is room to grow the brands. Chrysler and Fiat both need new product. Fiat makes a good car, we just need some different models. What's happened across the industry, sedans have gone down, you've got to play in the SUV market a little more. Both those brands need a little something to get them pumped up again. The customer is looking for a smaller, midsize or subcompact SUV or some kind of crossover.
Sedan sales have been down across the industry, but the Dodge Challenger is actually up this year. Why do you think that car is defying the trend?
We make an all-wheel-drive Challenger. You get here in the Northeast, it's four-wheel drive. It's more appealing. It's priced aggressively, it's a good value for the money. They keep it fresh, there's always a new look or a new package. It fits a lot of different needs for the limited amount of people in that segment. I sell mostly, if it's not a Hellcat, a GT model, which is all-wheel drive.
How are the wide-body Challengers doing?
It's a little seasonal for me. It was 9 degrees here this morning. That car doesn't do good in the colder weather. I probably can't compete with a guy in Florida, but I do sell a fair amount in the summer. It's a little more seasonal.
What are your thoughts on a wide-body Charger? Would that be enticing?
I think it would be low volume, but I think it can be sold. It would just have to make sense for the company. We'll sell it, but can we sell enough across the country to keep the plant going and make some money?
What can FCA do to build momentum for Alfa Romeo?
I'm not an Alfa Romeo dealer, but I think it's product. More SUVs is what I'm hearing from these guys. The products it has seem to be selling really well.
Any product holes for Jeep or Ram that you want filled?
I don't think so. I think they've done a great job of keeping it fresh. The amount of competitors' trucks that I trade on Ram is nothing short of amazing. It's a great truck. With Reid Bigland and these guys, they are great marketers. They know how to do business.
How are incentives looking for Rams right now?
The whole segment is aggressive. I think Ford is most aggressive, then Ram falls in there and General Motors comes in and out. It's a very profitable segment for the manufacturers. They need to be in it and they need to be competitive. People expect quality, and they expect good value with the quality.
Does FCA do a good job of communicating with its dealers?
I think the communication is great, especially with the dealer council. I've been on for quite a few years, three or four meetings a year, monthly calls. They try to update the dealer body before they run to [the media] and announce what's going on. They have an open-door policy. Here's a guy, Reid Bigland, who sits in on all of our meetings and calls. I think they communicate well. Our internal system for email and announcements and stuff is pretty good. I don't think there's an issue with communication. They're not afraid to say no. Reid will tell you "yes," "no" or "we're working on it."
As far as marketing, is the company hitting the right marks?
Everybody is a marketing genius, I guess. But at the end of the day, we're advertising five brands. It's different when you're just Ford or Hyundai or whatever the case may be. I think we do a pretty good job of doing the best we can with what we have. They make good spots and show the equipment. I think that's all you can ask for. They're very involved in the Internet side of it and all that stuff that goes along with analytics, keywords. I think they've done a good job with that.