Chrysler CMO Abandons Ship As It Navigates Roiling Seas

In the midst of being spun off by DaimlerChrysler to Cerberus Capital Management, Chrysler has lost its CMO officer of six years, George Murphy, who survived previous post-merger purges, including that of James Schroer four years ago.

Murphy, 51, came to Chrysler as SVP/global brand marketer from Ford in 2001, along with former EVP/global sales and marketing Schroer and former divisional marketing heads Julie Roehm and Jeff Bell. He leaves Thursday. The company, which says Murphy is pursuing other opportunities, hasn't announced a replacement.

Before coming to Chrysler, Murphy was Ford division general marketing manager, one of a number of Ford marketers hired from outside the automotive business by then-CEO Jacques Nasser. Murphy left Ford around the time Ford's board of directors replaced Nasser with Bill Ford, Jr.

At Chrysler, Murphy kept a low profile, especially when the more voluble Schroer directed marketing there. He has been involved in efforts to give divisional brands - Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge - distinct identities and vehicles.

Such efforts included a gutsy redefinition of the Dodge division from "Dodge Different" to "Grab Life by the Horns," engineered as well by Roehm, who left last year for her ill-fated Wal-Mart stint. He also was involved in shifting the meaning of Jeep's off-road-capable identity from vehicles that can traverse the suspension-mangling Rubicon Trail to "Trail Rated."

Since Daimler-Benz' acquisition of the company in 1998 for $38 billion, the company has been on a roller coaster ride. The last major slump came in 2003, after a $1 billion loss in the second quarter that year and lackluster sales of a vehicle, the Pacifica, which was supposed to be a "segment buster" for Chrysler. That year's losses and poor performance of Pacifica forced the ouster of Schroer.

Chrysler has had several crisis moments in recent years and a few stunning successes such as the launch of the 300 sedan and, most recently, the four-door Jeep Wrangler. The company has also managed to continue its domination of the minivan market.

Murphy also oversaw the launch this month of Chrysler division's new branding push, "Engineered Beautifully."

Art Spinella, director of CNW Market Research, an auto consultancy in Bandon, Ore., says with the company--soon to be formerly known as DaimlerChrysler--jettisoning its American unit, it's likely several high-level executives will be looking for an exit. "There are probably a lot of resumes being sent out," he says.

Press releases have been explicit only in guaranteeing that Tom LaSorda's job as CEO of what will soon be called Chrysler Holding LLC is secure.

"It's a bunker mentality there now," says Spinella. "In a sense, Chrysler has been 'hiding' from the Germans, and the Daimler folks are not terribly forthcoming anymore with support or assistance for Chrysler engineers. You have to remember that the German engineers were against the merger in the first place and since [the deal with Cerberus], there has been very little communication. It's like the Vikings putting the dead body in the boat, lighting it on fire and shoving it out to sea."

In terms of changes in product, Spinella says the new owners will likely address larger vehicles "taking up showroom space," many in the Dodge lineup, such as Durango, Nitro, Charger and the Magnum wagon.

The deal dispatching Chrysler to Cerberus will be finalized in the third quarter this year.

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