What’s the industry’s mood heading into 2011?

To find out, Ward’s took the pulse of several key players representing nearly every facet of the business.

Participants include Hyundai Motor America President John Krafcik, Ford Motor Co.’s top designer J Mays, Fiat North America brand chief Laura Soave and Volkswagen of America Inc. CEO Jonathan Browning.

Representing labor’s point of view is United Auto Workers President Bob King, and speaking up from the dealer perspective is megadealer Jack Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Auto Malls. Josè Maria Alapont, president and CEO of supplier Federal-Mogul Corp., also weighs in.

They tell us about what it will take to get the U.S. market back on track, what they are facing in their own jobs in the coming year and what they would be doing if they couldn’t work in autos.

Ward’s: What is the one sign you are waiting for before you declare the U.S. market ready to rock again?

King: People gotta have jobs. Consumers can’t buy vehicles or any durable goods until they’re confident enough (in their jobs) and they get some security. We’ve got to get people back to work.

Fitzgerald: The resolution of the housing crisis. That’s the main problem. The housing crisis is driving all the stress. People who see their home values decline feel poorer, so they spend less money.

Krafcik: There are really two key things we need – sustained improvement in employment (say three consecutive quarters of employment gains), and a significant uptick in housing. New housing starts have pretty much flat-lined these last two years.

Once we see new housing starts increase, we'll have a sign that home equity and home ownership are back on the upswing. That should drive increasing consumer confidence and provide more of that retail boost we've all been looking for in the industry.

Ward’s: What’s the most interesting/challenging part of your job?

Mays: Protecting people from what they think they want.

Soave: Being a bridge between the American and Italian corporate cultures and ensuring that an iconic vehicle like the Fiat 500 keeps its Italian essence and flair while still satisfying the particular needs of the U.S. consumers.

Alapont: Developing a world-class diversified and leading Federal-Mogul with a best-in-class team capable to satisfy customers, shareholders and employees by generating sustainable global profitable growth based on technology, innovation and quality excellence in products and services, at a competitive cost.

Browning: The challenge for me and the team here in the U.S. is to connect this spirit of our company ever more closely with this same spirit among American consumers. Our task is not only about building emotional connections with customers, it is also about developing and communicating the tangible realities of the VW Group’s commitment to the U.S. (such as our new Chattanooga, TN, plant and Palo Alto, CA, electronics research lab).

Fitzgerald: My customers fascinate me. There are so many different kinds of people. My associates (employees) are interesting, too. We’re very multicultural. Twenty seven different languages are spoken at our stores. That’s amazing.

Krafcik: I love everything about this industry, from the product to the design and manufacturing processes to the consumer touch points in marketing, sales and service.

So for me, the most interesting part of this job is being able to work with talented people in all of these areas on a daily basis. There's great esprit de corps here, and considering the size and scope of Hyundai we've actually got a remarkably small-company point-of-view.

That point-of-view, and the tight relationships we have within the company and with our dealers, give us an agility and speed-to-market that is exhilarating. We say that we work at a different clock speed here...we call it “HyundaiSpeed.”

Ward’s: What have you driven recently or what are you looking forward to driving in 2011?

Mays: The Boss 302.

Alapont: Together with my wife we have recently driven Cadillac, Toyota, Mercedes and Lincoln models. We recently had a new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet Volt for a test drive at our headquarters, and both were very good.

Fitzgerald: A (customized) Toyota Prius plug-in, Volkswagen Phaeton and Subaru Legacy.

King: Any vehicle as long as it’s UAW-made.

Krafcik: The ʼ12 Genesis R-Spec with our new 5.0L direct-injection Tau V-8 and our in-house 8-speed AT. It’s an amazing machine.

Soave: Are you serious? Of course the 500!

Ward’s: If you couldn’t work in the auto industry, what would you be doing?

Mays: (I’d be an) architect.

Browning: I can’t imagine doing anything other than working in the automotive industry. That’s why I’ve stuck with it my entire career. I love being around cars and all the challenges that come with operating in a global environment.

Soave: Own a restaurant or hotel.

Alapont: I have been enjoying this challenging industry during the last 36 years, 18 with global vehicle manufacturers and another 18 with suppliers – and definitely I would do it all over again. Other than this, I could be interested in global financial investments.

Krafcik: It's hard to imagine working in another industry, but if I couldn't work in autos I'd want to be in a consumer-facing industry developing and marketing complex products and services. The interface between consumer electronics and social media is an interesting space right now.

Fitzgerald: I’d probably be dead.

– with Steve Finlay, Eric Mayne, Tom Murphy, Byron Pope and Dave Zoia