Commentary

Fireworks are going off at Chrysler these days, and while it’s not July 4, it is about independence.

If you don’t already have an office pool going regarding which top-notch executive the “New Chrysler” next plans to recruit for its all-star management team, you may be too late.

One missing piece of the puzzle is a product guru, and that may be the toughest match of all. What is clear is that the reborn auto maker is going after the best and the brightest, and its top executive is not afraid to surround himself with strong leaders.

In a dazzling series of announcements in recent weeks that have astounded even the most hardened industry veterans, the Detroit auto maker recently pulled off the coup heard round the world with news Jim Press, Toyota’s long-time face to North America, will become Chrysler’s new vice chairman and president of North American sales.

What’s more, the deed was done without a single media leak.

Press, 60, joins former Lexus marketing executive and Detroit-area native Deborah Wahl Meyer, named vice president and chief marketing officer.

And in another wickedly wise move, former General Motors China chief Phil Murtaugh is coaxed away from Shanghai Automotive – China’s largest auto maker – to become Chrysler’s front man in Asia.

Along with guiding growth in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, Murtaugh, the consummate China insider whose career spans some 30 years with GM, will shepherd Chrysler’s crucial but controversial joint venture with Chery Automobile to build small cars for North America.

Robert Nardelli, newly named Chrysler chairman and CEO, and a former Jack Welch/General Electric whiz-kid, has said these super managers will have to leave their egos at the door.

Arguably, they already have.

Why else would accomplished veterans of the automotive wars join a struggling company such as Chrysler, especially at a time when the U.S. auto industry is fighting just to stay alive, unless they were in it for more than short-term gains?

To prove themselves? Been there, done that. Money? Sure, it’s a factor. Judging from media reports, Chrysler-owner Cerberus Capital Management is willing to pay big bucks for top-notch talent. But just how much do these high-ranking road warriors need?

Nope, these are emotional decisions. And that’s the wonderful thing about the U.S. automotive industry. Yes, it’s about nuts and bolts, profits and loss and bean counters plotting late into the night. But it’s also about dreams and desires and elegant driving machines.

It’s Machiavellian in its schemes and Shakespearean in its drama. It’s about the rise and fall and rise again of companies that said they could.

And perhaps for Press in particular, with 37 years in the auto biz, it’s the irresistible desire to top off a successful career as the “guy” in the white hat who rides back into town to make things right.

Nardelli puts it best: “What really brought this together was (Press’) passion for the industry and an opportunity to contribute significantly to the resurgence at Chrysler.

“When you reach a certain point in your career, you really want to look back and say, ‘I helped restore.’ Jim’s coming at it from that standpoint.”

In the end, it’s a shot at automotive immortality, not the money. And that’s what gives the New Chrysler a real fighting chance.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com