The surprise departure of Toyota Motor North America President Jim Press from the No.1 Japanese auto maker may come as a shock, but it won’t slow the growth of the company, analysts tell Ward’s.

Press, who first joined Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. in 1970, says in a statement: “Toyota has been the centerpiece of my life. This was the most difficult decision I have made, but I am truly looking forward to an exciting new chapter in my career.”

That chapter begins this month as Press becomes co-vice chairman and co-president of Chrysler LLC, titles he will share with Chrysler’s Tom LaSorda. Both will answer to Chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli, the former Home Depot chief hired in August.

Press’ resignation from Toyota Motor Corp. is effective Sept. 14, and he is expected to officially join Chrysler Sept. 17.

He is the only non-Japanese executive to ever sit on Toyota’s board of directors and the second high-profile Toyota executive that Chrysler, under the new ownership of private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, has lured away in recent weeks.

Deborah Wahl Meyer, former head of marketing for Toyota’s luxury Lexus division in the U.S., was named Chrysler’s new vice president and chief marketing officer three weeks ago.

Unlike Meyer, whose career spanned a number of Detroit-based auto makers before joining Toyota, Press – except for a short stint at Ford Motor Co. – has been with the Japanese car maker since its sales were listed in the “Others” category, he joked earlier this year during a speech in Detroit.

Under Press’ leadership, Toyota today ranks No.2 in sales in the U.S. It also is No.1 globally in terms of vehicle output.

“Symbolically, this has got to be a blow (to Toyota),” David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says of Press’ jump to Chrysler.

However, he points out that in typical Toyota fashion, the company already has a replacement for Press, current TMNA Executive Vice President Shigeru Hayakawa. “They always have a succession plan in place,” Cole says.

Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting firm in New Jersey, says Press’ current management responsibilities took him away from the sales and marketing side of the business that he loved.

Press succeeded former TMNA President Hideaki Otaka, who resigned last year in the wake of a sexual-harassment scandal. Before that Press was president and chief operating officers at the auto maker’s U.S. sales subsidiary in Los Angeles.

“(Press) was several steps away from the action on a daily basis, and this new job puts him right back in the thick of things.” Phillippi says. “Jim’s a sales guy. Toyota’s a manufacturing company that happens to sell cars.”

In his new job, Press will be in charge of Chrysler’s North American and international sales, as well as global marketing and “strengthening and energizing the dealer body,” he says in an official Chrysler release.

Both Cole and Phillippi believe Press would not have risen to the rank of president at Toyota in Japan, despite being named senior managing director in April.

“I don’t think that would have happened. Jim’s not a young guy,” Cole says, adding Toyota likely is grooming a Toyoda family member (Akio, son of honorary chairman Shoichiro) to replace current CEO Katsuaki Watanabe.

“Maybe he realized he had bumped into the rice-paper ceiling, so to speak,” Phillippi says. “You only can go so far as a non-Japanese…and non-manufacturing guy. You may very well tend to go sideways for awhile, so you’re trapped upward basically.”

In Toyota’s official press release, Watanabe thanks Press for his years of service and says he was “looking forward to (Press) playing a bigger role as a member of our management team.”

One Toyota dealer says Press probably wanted to get back to a position that would put him in contact with dealers. “There has been talk among dealers who knew Jim well that he wanted to return to a position of sales and dealer leadership,” says Douglas Kool of Kool Toyota in Grand Rapids, MI.

Jim Dunn, general manager of JM Lexus of Margate, FL, the nation’s leading Lexus sales-volume store, says Press “always has liked challenges and may have felt Chrysler offers more of a challenge in the years ahead.”

Cole says Press’ rapport with dealers will come in handy at Chrysler, where the auto maker’s retailers have been up in arms over the direction and marketing of the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands.

– with Mack Gordon

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com