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New GAC-Fiat chief Burton will lead Jeep's China push

The grill of a Jeep is pictured at a Chrysler/Jeep dealership in Vienna, Virginia April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
The grill of a Jeep is pictured at a Chrysler/Jeep dealership in Vienna, Virginia April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Jennifer Clark and Norihiko Shirouzu

MILAN/BEIJING (Reuters) - Fiat-Chrysler's plans to build Jeep into a global brand move forward on Friday when a new executive takes over at the company's Chinese joint venture to ramp up production of the sports utility vehicle.

Chrysler and Chinese automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group <601238.SS> joint venture GAC-Fiat aims to produce over 100,000 new Jeep models in China by as early as 2014, in a move that is key to Fiat's goal of selling 300,000 vehicles annually in China by next year.

Fiat-Chrysler is hoping that Jeep's wide brand recognition in China will help it catch up to competitors in China, as well as build Jeep's sales to a new record high.

GAC-Fiat has appointed a new general manager, John Burton, as of March 1 replacing Jack Cheng. Burton has nearly 20 years of experience under his belt running plants for General Motors in Poland, Germany and Britain. Most recently, he was in charge of green field projects for GM in Detroit.

"He has an immense task since Fiat is obviously one of the last automakers into China," said Bernstein analyst Max Wharburton. "They have some knowledge of China thanks to Iveco (trucks), but in passenger cars they are starting from scratch with an unknown brand, limited distribution, and a somewhat difficult local partner."

Fiat, which took management control of Chrysler after the U.S. automaker's 2009 bankruptcy, lags far behind other foreign carmakers in China, the world's biggest car market. General Motors and Volkswagen both sold over 2.8 million cars last year, and together accounted for over 29 percent of total vehicle sales in China, according to IHS Global Insight.

Fiat sold 8,800 cars in January in China, according to IHS.

Fiat built its first factory in China in June 2012 in Guandong, where Burton will be based. It launched the Viaggio sedan in September, which shares a platform with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and the Dodge Dart.

Fiat-Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne is masterminding a four-year retooling of Jeep that is intended to establish it as one of the Italian automaker's core global brands.

(Reporting by Jennifer Clark; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

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