Friday, September 21, 2007

Chrysler's Press out to make things happen

Sought-after ex-Toyota executive says he'll bring 'good, fresh direction' on his first day at new job.

Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News

Jim Press, who was Toyota Motor Corp.'s highest-ranking American executive before making a surprise career move to join Chrysler LLC, said the time was right for a job change.

"This is a chance to not sit by the window and watch things happen but be part of making history, making things happen," Press said Thursday in an interview on WJR Radio. "The timing couldn't be better. The U.S. auto market is going to come back and come back strong."

Press, whose first day at Chrysler was Wednesday, said his new gig as vice chairman and president gives him an opportunity to apply lessons learned at Toyota, the Japanese powerhouse known for its manufacturing discipline and quality.

"They need some good, fresh direction and some consistent thoughts and observations," Press said. "I can bring those."

The interview was Press' first public comments since he made headlines two weeks ago when Chrysler parent company Cerberus Capital Management LP said it had nabbed the sought-after Toyota executive.

Chrysler, now privately held, is in the midst of a turnaround after losing $680 million in 2006 and $2 billion in the first quarter this year. The company did not release specific figures for the second quarter but is believed to have had break-even results.

Cerberus, which bought an 80.1 percent stake in the U.S. automaker in August, has been making moves to build a top-notch management team in an effort to accelerate Chrysler's comeback.

Press, 60, called Cerberus "for real," meaning the company was committed to Chrysler. "Mr. (Stephen) Feinberg, when he contacted me, he said he wants to build a great American icon," Press said, recounting his conversation with the Cerberus chief. He described the recruitment process as not "drawn out."

"It wasn't long," he said. "It was obviously meant to be."

Press shares the chairman and president titles with former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, who was replaced by former Home Depot Inc. CEO Bob Nardelli.

"Tom, he knows the company. He's a great inside guy," Press said. "Bob knows business. And I know a little bit about cars. The three of us together can provide some leadership and guidance, some strategy, some vision."

Press will work closely with Chrysler's 3,750 dealers. The executive, who was well-liked by Toyota's dealers, called Chrysler's retailers "the strongest dealers" because they've been through the highs and lows of the business and said they were "key" to the automaker's success.

But Press hinted that the number of Chrysler dealers may have to be reduced to strengthen the network. There are about 1,200 Toyota dealerships countrywide, including its Lexus luxury arm.

"We (Chrysler) haven't made responses necessary to keep our retail organization profitable, and growing and prosperous," he said. "We need to take a look at that and the other thing we need to do is grow the business. Part of the solution is to get the size right and part of the solution is to grow into your shoes."

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