AUSTIN (KXAN) - Lisa Copeland, the general manager of Fiat of Austin, and the head of North American operations for the Italian car company had a bet:
If the local dealership could sell 100 of the little cars in one month, Tim Kuniskis would use his clout to bring in a celebrity of Copeland's choosing to personally congratulate her staff.
Copeland threw Kuniskis a curve ball by passing over movie actors, rock stars and the like. Instead, she chose Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat S.P.A.
And on Monday, Marchionne flew in from Switzerland to personally congratulate the management team at Fiat of Austin. The dealership in the upscale Domain shopping center was the first outlet in North America to sell more than 100 Fiat 500s in a single month.
"No was more surprised by her choice than I am, and I'm still shocked," said Marchionne. He later told Copeland, "I'm really here for one reason only: I'm here to tell Lisa that the only true celebrity here is Lisa."
In March the team also had high-performing numbers, selling 90 Fiats. The Fiat dealership in Los Angeles only sold one more unit that month. The southern California dealership can draw from 10 times the population base than is available in the Austin area.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell also made an appearance at the celebration, declaring Monday "Fiat Cinquecento Day in Austin Texas."
Fiat of Austin opened in March 2011, and Texas is now home to 16 Fiat dealerships or "studios" as the Italian brand refers to them.
In 2009 Marchionne was key to the alliance between Fiat and Chrysler. One year ago, Chrysler paid back its bailout money to the government. And, as Marchionne pointed out, "with heavy interest."
"I, as a small businessman, I went back to Chrysler in 2009. We believe in the Chrysler business, and it's just a very exciting time to be apart of a relaunch of such a wonderful Italian brand," said Fiat dealership owner Nyle Maxwell.
The Austin businessman also had praises on the CEO, ""Mr. Marchionne was responsible for the rebirth of Chrysler. I guess he could be could be described as a savior of Chrysler once again."
Marchionne said Fiat's biggest competition is the Mini Cooper, "It is fierce competition, something like the Texas/Oklahoma rivalry apparently from what I am told."
For the past six months, the Italian brand has beat the Mini Cooper in the U.S. by 30 percent in sales.
Fiat of Austin also holds another sales record: selling more Fiat 500s by Gucci than any other dealership.
"You are the one that's demonstrated even in Texas -- the land of pickups and SUVs -- the 500 can perform better than in any other state," Marchionne told Copeland and her team.
Marchionne said he plans a return visit to Austin for the city's inaugural Formula One race in November.
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