Who Do You Want Running Your Car Company?

February 13th, 2012

Dan Akerson at a GM Town Hall meeting

We thought it might be enlightening to look at the CEOs of three of the largest car companies so you can decide whom you want to replace Henrik Fisker (Monday joke, of course). We didn’t include Alan Mulally, because most of you know his record at Ford.

Dan Akerson, 63, came to General Motors in 2010 after five years in the Navy and wide business experience, mostly as head of global buyout for the Carlyle Group and in telecommunications. He had a track record in private equity but not in manufacturing or autos.

So, despite coming in cold, Akerson is a turnaround guy and, according to most analysts, has done extremely well in bringing back GM from the dead, paying back government loans, and making saleable and respected product again.

It has been a dramatic transformation, one not without costs to those whom GM’s bankruptcy burned. Most of you know about the success of cars like the Chevy Cruze and the Buick Verano. The Volt has been a disappointment but was an experiment that may yet pay off.

Akerson is a very capable numbers guy but hasn’t lost sight of where GM needs to go to rebuild, not just internally but with its public. His focus on new propulsion systems and labor relations, rebuilding dealer networks and defending the Volt all made news. He’s also been a supporter of Sen. John McCain and Teddy Roosevelt.

Sergio MarchionneFIAT Chrysler head Sergio Marchionne came from a legal and accounting background, took on management roles for a couple of Swiss firms, joined FIAT’s board in 2003 and was made CEO in 2004. He’s an Italian-Canadian who chain-smokes and loves supercars and classical music.

For all of Marchionne’s style—the sweaters, jokes and all, his preference for cutting through red tape and giving his mangers free reign—he is a tough guy.

Before you start thinking of him as a more benevolent breed of CEO, one of the first things he did at Fiat was to close factories, lay off workers and sack most of the management. His job is to take companies out of death spirals—and nothing gets in the way of that.

The task he undertook in resurrecting Chrysler was not just a replay of what happened at FIAT. But he has done a notable job, with sales up 26 percent in 2011, more than any other major car company. Chrysler sold 2 million cars globally and is now owned 58.5 percent by FIAT.

Marchionne warns that “this string cannot be replicated,” and this year may be tough. But Sergio is one smart risk-taker, and he has transformed perhaps the most staid and backward of all the Detroit Big Three.

Akio ToyodaAkio Toyoda, grandson of the founder, was born into the Toyota business with a silver spoon, yes, but has had to be a quick learner in the ways of crisis management, discovering the perils of recession, recalls, bad press and finally the horrific tsunami.

By most reports, Toyota Motors has made tremendous efforts to counter these setbacks and “Akio has reenergized the company.” It now has 19 new or redesigned models in the 2012 pipeline, which is kind of amazing.

The biggest thing Akio may have done was to transform the hidebound management structure after the recall crisis of 2009-2010. Then came the great trial of the tsunami, and the jury is still out on the effects of that. But Akio has become a hands-on guy, not just racing and driving test cars but transforming his company’s management. He dislikes “so-called yes-men.”

The job of bringing back Lexus has already begun, with a bunch of new model introductions. The GS cars, in particular, need a real shot in the arm. They are still too dependent on high-tech junk, in my opinion. But Akio is clearly on a roll.

Which of these three would you pick to lead your car company?

—jgoods

Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Used Chevrolet Cruze
Used Buick Verano
Used Chevrolet Volt

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  1. Randy
    February 13th, 2012 at 16:12 | #1

    I’ll have to vote for Toyoda. Despite Toyota’s recent lapse in quality control (who’s record still crushes most other car companies) I have to say what Toyoda has is a culture of excellence. This is a buzz word that people like Akerson like to toss around at auto shows, but they live it at Toyota. After almost three decades at GM, I can tell you they talk about it, sometimes they achieve it in small pockets, but when it’s there, a new boss will come along and wipe it out.
    Hey, given car sales hit the worst numbers in history a few years back, how impressive is it for companies like GM and Chrysler to show sales increases every year? That’s just dumb luck, not management. GM is still the brain dead, amoral, stillborn mess it was before the crash. It just seems more successful because it was able to walk away from hundreds of billions in debt. Keep watching, because next time there won’t be a bailout. If you think GM has really changed, do an internet search on “chevy sonic brake pads recall”. I’ve seen some doozie recalls, but who can ship thousands of cars with no brake pads in them?

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