Friday, September 7, 2007

Chrysler's coup

DETROIT - Chrysler pulled off a major coup Thursday, hiring away the highly-regarded Jim Press, Toyota's top North American executive, to run its sales and marketing operations.

Press, 60, formerly president and chief operating officer for Toyota in North America and the first non-Japanese member of Toyota Motor Corp.'s board of directors, will become Chrysler vice chairman and president.

He joins new Chairman and chief executive Robert Nardelli and Tom LaSorda on Chrysler LLC's top management team. LaSorda already has and will retain the same titles as Press.

LaSorda will run the company's manufacturing and purchasing operations, while Press will handle sales, marketing and product strategy, said company spokesman Mike Aberlich.

Toyota said Press' resignation will be effective Sept. 14. Shigeru Hayakawa, a Japanese veteran at the company and Toyota managing officer, will be the new president of Toyota North America.

Hiring Press is Chrysler's second major executive announcement since August, when private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP took control of 80.1 percent of the company from DaimlerChrysler AG. Cerberus announced Aug. 6 that Nardelli, a former Home Depot Inc. CEO, would become Chrysler's chairman and CEO.

"Toyota has been the centerpiece of my life. This was the most difficult decision I have made," Press said in a statement.

Press, an American, has been with Toyota for 37 years. His rise at Toyota was widely seen as furthering the company's effort to bolster its standing as a multinational corporation.

"Jim has played a significant role in strengthening Toyota's presence in the U.S," Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said. "I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all he has done for Toyota."

Press comes to Chrysler with a great record of success at Toyota, which has seen continued U.S. sales increases for the past several years. Chrysler's sales have been dropping.

Aberlich said hiring Press is no reflection on LaSorda, who was demoted from chairman and CEO when Nardelli was hired. "The guy is such a remarkable 'get' that you're going to do it," Aberlich said of Press, equating the hiring with a baseball team bringing another power hitter onto its roster.

Chrysler would not comment on Press' compensation package, and because it now is a private company, details likely will be kept quiet.

Aberlich said the compensation, like Nardelli's, will be tied to Chrysler's performance. "He'll help turn us around, and he'll be rewarded."

Press will face two immediate challenges: managing the launch of crucial new vehicles such as the Chrysler Town & Country minivan and Dodge Avenger sedan, and repairing the company's frayed relations with its dealers. Both tasks should play to his strengths.

As the key figure at Toyota's Torrance, Calif .-based U.S. sales division from 1999 to 2005, Press served as the automaker's eyes and ears in this country and was credited with having a keen understanding of what appealed to U.S. drivers. As head of Toyota Motor Sales USA, Press led Toyota's rapid sales climb from a 9.3 percent U.S. market share in 2000 to 13.1 percent in 2005.

"He's smart enough to know how to bring to market what the customer wants," said Jim Hall, an analyst with Tustin, Calif. -based consulting company AutoPacific Inc. "And knowing the secret of how to put the customer No. 1 is how Toyota went from being an importer with their headquarters Hollywood Boulevard to what may be the smartest car company on the planet."

Press also displayed a talent for working with car dealers, which will be "incredibly important at Chrysler because Chrysler has bungled its relations with its dealers," said Michelle Krebs, editor of Edmunds' AutoObserver.com.

Press is the second Toyota defector to join Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler. Last month, it hired a top marketing executive from the other company's Lexus luxury division - a division Press ran in the 1990s. Deborah Wahl Meyer, 44, was named vice president and chief marketing officer.

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