Commentary

Dealers, who sometimes complain auto executives don’t listen to them, had something to do with Chrysler’s huge coup of hiring industry titan Jim Press away from Toyota.

So says Robert Nardelli, who in August became chairman and CEO of the “New Chrysler,” after Cerberus Capital Management acquired the auto maker in a $7.4 billion deal that bid auf Wiedersehen to DaimlerChrysler.

Press, the highest-ranking non-Japanese executive at Toyota while president of its North American operations, will run Chrysler’s sales and marketing side, connecting him with dealers.

Speaking to the Automotive Press Assn. in Detroit in his first formal public appearance, a nattily dressed Nardelli notes Press is “universally respected across the dealership network.”

So what led Chrysler to approach Press? Positive feedback about him from dealers certainly helped.

Nardelli says Press’ name often came up as he talked with dealers, including Penske Automotive Group Chairman Roger Penske, AutoNation CEO Michael Jackson and dealer council members.

Press “became a very attractive candidate” as a result of those discussions, Nardelli says.

Why would Press, a 37-year auto industry veteran, leave money-making Toyota for money-losing Chrysler?

A Toyota dealer offers one explanation.

“There has been talk among dealers who knew Jim well that he wanted to return to a position of sales and dealer leadership,” Douglas Kool of Kool Toyota in Grand Rapids MI, tells Ward’s.

Whatever his reasons for jumping ship, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep dealers are welcoming Press aboard.

“This is huge,” dealer Carl F. Galeana tells me. “I’m shocked.”

Galeana, head of Galeana Automotive Group with Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep stores in Michigan, Florida and North Carolina, says he was so surprised by the news, he called Chrysler headquarters to make sure it was true.

“This is the story of the year,” he says.

Well, one of them. And so many seem to involve Chrysler.

First came the news in May that private equity firm Cerberus would buy a majority stake in Chrysler, breaking up a German-American automotive journey that had eight years of car trouble.

Then came news in August that Nardelli – who was pushed out as Home Depot’s CEO, but with a $210 million golden parachute to ease the landing – would become chairman and CEO of the reconstituted Chrysler.

Part of that intriguing story is that Tom LaSorda, who had been Chrysler CEO, would remain, but as president instead.

Part of the Press-to-Chrysler story is that he and LaSorda will share the titles of vice chairman and president.

“Chrysler arguably has the best manufacturing guy in the world in Tom LaSorda, and it now arguably has the best sales guy in the world in Jim Press,” Galeana says.

Says Nardelli: “I don’t know of any other CEO who has someone like Jim Press on one side and Tom LaSorda on the other.”

If anyone is expecting the next big story out of Chrysler to be the clash of superstar personalities in the executive suite, Nardelli says that won’t be the case. “The first thing you do is check egos at the door.”

This is the first time a private equity firm has owned a modern auto maker and in many ways, including putting together a unique executive team, Cerberus may be redefining how an auto company is run.

But what won’t change is the strategy LaSorda crafted as CEO. Chrysler doesn’t need another strategy, Nardelli says. “What we need is a better job of execution.”

That ranges from how well vehicles are made to how well they are sold.

“Quality starts with a vehicle but transcends to dealers and dealership sales people, so that when a customer puts that money down it all comes together,” Nardelli says. “It is bringing together gratification and a memorable sales experience.”

Although the auto industry has been accused of being a slow-moving beast burdened by a heavy bureaucracy, Nardelli says his goal “is to speed things up, not slow things down.”

A lot of people wonder how fast he can go.

He says he will let his performance speak for itself as he tries to return an American icon to its proper place.

“My grandfather said, ‘Bobby, when you make your numbers, you don’t have to talk. And when you don’t make your numbers, you’ll probably talk too much.’”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com