Chrysler chief needs strong ideas, resolve

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Let's hope Thomas LaSorda has a strong stomach.

That's what auto-industry observers believe Chrysler Group's chief operating officer will need to retain Chrysler's course in breaking from the automotive pack when he assumes the president-CEO post Jan. 1 from Dieter Zetsche. While the rest of the industry was developing "jellybean, boring-looking, front-wheel-drive sedans," said Todd Turner, president of consultancy CarConcepts, Chrysler went against convention and introduced the bold-looking Chrysler 300. "It's not an easy thing to do," he said, "and a lot of managers don't have the stomach" for it.

Does Mr. LaSorda? "He's a good manager," said Mr. Turner, who met the 51-year-old Canadian only once. "I just don't get the sense he has the vision to dare fly in the face of conventional logic."

Mr. Turner would like to see Mr. LaSorda, one of the few manufacturing gurus to rise to the top of an automaker, push for more "visionary marketing" that's not as safe as today's advertising for Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep. (Omnicom Group's BBDO, Troy, Mich., handles creative.)

Mr. LaSorda was not available for comment, but Wes Brown, analyst at consultancy Iceology, said he expects Chrysler's new chief to surround himself with the right people in design, marketing, sales, engineering and finance.

His short-term challenge will be production and setting prices, including suggested stickers and incentives, said Jesse Toprak, director of auto-data site Edmunds.com, since the marketer's product pipeline is largely decided for the next two years.

With General Motors Corp. set to announce its 2006-model "value-pricing" this week, Mr. LaSorda will have to plot the right moves in reaction.

Van Bussman, retired chief economist of Chrysler, said Mr. LaSorda will be under pressure to keep costs down to balance legacy costs, such as organized labor pensions and health care. That's an area he's quite familiar with. His father, Frank, led the Canadian UAW, and Mr. LaSorda's extensive contact with the auto union will come in handy when the carmaker opens contract talks next year.

One trouble spot he will not have to directly concern himself with is Mercedes-Benz, which reports separately to DaimlerChrysler in Germany. Mercedes has suffered from plunging profit levels globally and in the U.S., though the German company claimed the brand "reached its turning point in profitability in the second quarter of this year" and said it expects improved earnings for the rest of 2005.

Mr. Zetsche, 52, will be a tough act to follow. (Mr. Zetsche will return to Germany to assume leadership of DaimlerChrysler next year.) Considered an underdog when he moved to Detroit to head Chrysler, "he really understood the American car company and fostered a can-do, take-no-prisoners' attitude," said Mr. Turner.

But Ed Brust, who retired from Chrysler in 2003 as president of its Canadian operations, is bullish on Mr. LaSorda, whom he said is a good listener and respects others. "LaSorda knows the system, and he'll be very effective."

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