August 06, 2007
As Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s famous designer of the Chrysler 300 and now vice president of Jeep, truck and advance interior design, tooled into work Monday morning, he decided he ought to trade his music for AM radio -– something he never does.
But, this was a special day -- the first day of Chrysler’s new ownership and the celebration of that event.
He then heard the news that the press had broken the night before but he hadn’t heard: ex-Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli was his new boss as Chrysler’s chairman and CEO.
“I about fell off my rocker,” Gilles told the press at a Chrysler gathering in Traverse City, Michigan, where industry leaders are meeting for the University of Michigan's annual management conference and at which Gilles was scheduled to speak Monday on innovation.Like many inside and outside of Chrysler, Gilles had expected the news to be that former Chrysler COO and ex-Volkswagen exec Wolfgang Bernhard was the new head of Chrysler. Gilles and others who had worked with Bernhard welcomed such a move. “We already were writing our own script” for his return, Gilles confessed.
But Gilles said it was also unclear if Bernhard would actually leave his homeland of Germany again for a U.S. post. Gilles does credit Bernhard with being the agent for giving Cerberus the expertise to help make its decision about buying Chrysler. "He did what he was assigned to do," Gilles said.
When he arrived at work, Gilles was immediately drawn into a senior management meeting to meet and greet Nardelli. Gilles described the meeting as "lighthearted" and "celebratory" -- a getting-to-know session. Instead of laying out strategy, Nardelli told the senior management team about himself and how he sees himself as "a dry sponge" in his new role, eager to learn the car business.
Gilles was impressed that Nardelli, long before the idea of him heading Chrysler was ever considered, was a Chrysler vehicle owner. He has in his household fleet a Chrysler PT Cruiser, a Jeep, a Plymouth Prowler and a Chrysler minivan.
"[The minivan] told me the guy has good taste," said Gilles, who most recently headed the team that redesigned Chrysler's minivans soon to hit showrooms. "And the Prowler is unique, it put me at ease [about him not being a car guy]," he added.
Then it was onto the hour or so flight to Traverse City, where Gilles would be the sole Chrysler representative to be grilled by press on this historic day on questions, some of which he could answer and some neither he nor anyone could answer as the new Chrysler story unfolds.
Gilles said already the Cerberus team has seen all of Chrysler's upcoming products. Cerberus' purchase suggests an endorsement of the product plan, he said.
As for Chrysler Imperial, Gilles said he had no say in the decision of not moving ahead in production the large, rear-drive flagship for the Chrysler division. He said he thought the car was "phenomenal."
"I believed we could pull it off," he said. But in an environment of high gas prices, likely higher fuel-economy standards and more rigid emission rules, killing it and spending the money elsewhere was the right thing.
Gilles is optimistic about the future of Chrysler under private equity ownership, a first in automobile company history. He believes better decisions will be made for the long term instead of "making clumsy decisions" to make quarterly reports look better.
Current Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed remains Gilles' boss, despite speculation that Creed may be another casualty. Gilles said he has not had contact with former Chrysler design chief Tom Gale, who was hired as an advisor to Cerberus and whose son is a Chrysler designer.
Gilles, considered one of the industry's hottest designers and destined to rise to Chrysler's design chief in the not-too-distant future, said he's sticking with Chrysler, because he likes the company. It isn't a matter of an extra dollar here or there.
"The story of Chrysler is a great story," said Gilles. And one, he admits, is history in the making.