The high-profile hire of Mr. Press, 60, as president-vice chairman of the "new" Chrysler shocked the automotive world last week with news of his departure from Toyota after 37 years. He had risen to become the first non-Japanese president of holding company Toyota Motor North America and was distinguished as the first American named to the automaker's board of directors in its 72-year history.
Observers said this is the biggest signal yet that under new owner Cerberus Capital Management, it won't be business as usual at Chrysler.
A 'product guy'
"This is one of the biggest shots in the arm for Detroit in months," said Doug Scott, senior VP of consultant GfK Automotive, who worked for Mr. Press in the 1980s. Among Mr. Press' strengths, he said, is his focus and low-key personality that is not prone to the "bigger-than-life, über-egos of the old Detroit." The new Chrysler executive, who starts Sept. 17, is also "a product guy," Mr. Scott said. "But more than that, Mr. Press is broadly strategic, whether working in the regions with dealers or overall marketing strategy for a brand."
While hiring Mr. Press won't make Chrysler a powerhouse overnight, it will help the automaker get more focused than it has been in recent years, Mr. Scott said.
Mr. Press is such a well-respected industry executive that Cerberus' ability to woo him to Chrysler shows "the rules have changed with private equity," said Michelle Krebs, editor of Edmunds' AutoObserver.com. Mr. Press is the second Toyota executive to sign on at Chrysler following Deborah Wahl Meyer joining as VP-chief marketing officer last month.
Ms. Krebs said Mr. Press is really good with dealers, and one of the first things he can tackle is getting Chrysler dealers fired up about selling vehicles. "That's what Chrysler needs right now" after a disastrous 2006 inventory buildup severely strained dealer-factory relations, she said.
The industry swirled with speculation about why Mr. Press would leave Toyota after being such a cheerleader for the company for so many years and so close to retirement age.
"It's probably equity" in the company, said Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts. "He doesn't need the money," but if Cerberus sold Chrysler in bits and pieces, today it should be able to tally $2 billion in profits, he speculated, since it underpaid by that much for its $7.45 billion deal to buy 80% of Chrysler from Germany's DaimlerChrysler.
Like his new boss, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli, Mr. Press will be compensated based on his performance, a Chrysler spokesman said, declining to comment on whether equity was part of the package to attract Mr. Press.
"Part of my new responsibilities will be strengthening and energizing the dealer body," Mr. Press said in a statement. "This is something I was passionate about at Toyota and will be passionate about at Chrysler."
He also said leaving Toyota, "the centerpiece of my life ... was the most difficult decision I have made, but I am truly looking forward to an exciting new chapter in my career."
If he helps turn around Chrysler, Mr. Press' legend would be solidified, Mr. Scott said. But it could take five years before Chrysler makes significant improvements, Mr. Turner said. "I don't get the sense Cerberus has the stomach to wait five years."
The spokesman said Mr. Press, who could not be reached for comment, will move to the Detroit area to oversee sales both internationally and in North America, global marketing, product strategy, and service and parts.
The arrival of Mr. Press doesn't bode well for Tom LaSorda, the CEO who was moved to president-vice chairman when Mr. Nardelli arrived.
LaSorda to resign?
Mr. Turner said he expects Mr. LaSorda to resign after the executive wraps up contract talks with the UAW. "How many presidents does a company need?" he asked.
The Chrysler spokesman called such talk "speculation," saying Mr. LaSorda has a long-term contract, with responsibilities for manufacturing, procurement, alliances and employee relations. "Now we have an operations guy and a sales-and-marketing guy."
Toyota wasted no time naming a successor, tapping Shigeru Hayakawa, 53, who earlier this year was named managing officer of Toyota Motor Corp. and exec VP of Toyota Motor North America.