Press' Move To Chrysler Gives 'Em Something To Talk About

Whether it's for the challenge, the money or the chance to work again--after several decades--for a domestic manufacturer, Toyota Chairman Jim Press is leaving Toyota.

The Toyota Motors North America president and chief operating officer, who has been at the Torrance, Calif. company for virtually all of his professional life and last year became the first American to be appointed to Toyota's board, will become vice chairman and president of Cerberus Capital Management's Chrysler LLC.

On Thursday, Toyota announced that Press would be replaced by Shigeru Hayakawa, an executive vice president of the division who will continue to serve as a managing officer. Hayakawa joined Toyota in 1977 in the overseas department of the company's public affairs division. This year, he was named managing officer of Toyota Motor and executive vice president of Toyota Motor North America.

At Chrysler, Press--who will oversee North American and global sales, global marketing, product strategy, and service and parts--will report to recently hired Chairman/CEO Robert Nardelli. Press will become a member of the Chrysler LLC Board of Directors and the Board of Managers of Cerberus Operations and Advisory Co. (COAC). Press and Tom LaSorda, president and vice chairman--whose tenure at Chrysler some have questioned--are both to be vice chairmen of COAC.



Press, who is 60, follows former Lexus vice president of marketing Deborah Wahl Meyer, a 44-year-old marketing wunderkind who joined Chrysler last month as vice president/CEO, reporting to Steven Landry, EVP North American sales, global marketing, services and parts. But market observers are quick to point out that the two hires are unrelated.

"Wahl Meyer had been looking for some time," says Daniel Gorrell, president of Tustin, Calif.-based Gorrell Group. He notes that Meyer was offered--and nearly accepted--an offer to become vice president/marketing at Hyundai Motors America, before being promoted to vice president at Lexus. Separately, sources say a management shuffle is coming at Hyundai.

"Jim Press and Wahl Meyer operate in different spheres; she was not well-liked at Toyota, and he was her guardian angel," he says.

While some question why someone of Press' stature--who has helped take Toyota from a 100,000-unit-per-year-player to the No. 2 automaker in the U.S.--would leave for Chrysler, Gorrell speculates that Press may have been on his way to a gilded pasture, sidelined by a company that has recently been filling divisional marketing ranks with younger executives like Jim Lentz and Jim Farley, both of whom graduated from Toyota's Scion division.

"Maybe he wants to stay in the thick of the action," says Gorrell. Indeed, Press, long admired as a dealer-centric marketer who once worked on his uncle's car lot, suggests in a Chrysler release that he wants more involvement. "Part of my new responsibilities will be strengthening and energizing the dealer body. This is something I was passionate about at Toyota and will be passionate about at Chrysler," he says in the release.

"He was certainly offered significant money but also a challenge, and he might like the challenge of bringing a domestic manufacturer back, though he would never admit that," notes Tom Libby of JD Power & Associates' Westlake, Calif. office.

Gorrell speculates that Chrysler will ultimately be a "strip and flip" operation in which Cerberus Capital will dismantle the company and sell the pieces, "and how would Jim Press benefit unless they gave him a big percentage of the game?" Libby thinks recent Cerberus actions suggest the opposite.

"Cerberus has been very aggressive in the last few weeks, notifying dealers they have to hit sales objectives or start termination; inhibiting underperforming dealers from going to closed auction, for example," Libby says.

Cerberus has fast-tracked a number of changes in recent weeks, beginning with the launch of a lifetime warranty program, begun before the DCX split-up, and the appointment of Andreas Schell, a 38-year-old Daimler executive, to the new post of director of Recovery and Transformation Plan and Business Strategy. On Wednesday Chrysler launched a new 72-month and 0% finance offering. "Their approach is different from what we are used to because they are fairly major actions that they are taking quickly, and not in lock-step with other companies," Libby says.

He says that--money aside--Chrysler offers Press an opportunity he has never had: to bring a company back. "He may want to see if he can excel in this situation."

Adds Rebecca Lindland, an automotive consultant with Global Insight, Lexington, Mass.: "He's been riding the wave of Toyota for 37 years, and maybe it's time for a change before he goes off into the great golfing sunset of retirement."

A marketer at Toyota who asked not to be named says it may have come down to wanderlust. "I can only assume that the lure of a completely new opportunity was too great to resist. Jim always enjoyed a challenge!"

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