03 September 2009

Deputy CEO Press to Leave Chrysler

By The Wall Street Journal

DETROIT -- Chrysler Group LLC Deputy Chief Executive Jim Press is planning to leave the auto maker before the end of the year, according to people who have been informed of the plan, as Fiat SpA seeks to revive the car company that two months ago emerged from bankruptcy.

Mr. Press, a former star at Toyota Motor Corp., was the only one of Chrysler's top executives retained after the company's bailout. He was kept on as a special adviser to Sergio Marchionne, who now serves as CEO of both Chrysler and Fiat.

But Mr. Press has been stripped of many of his responsibilities, and recent missteps have strained his relationship with Chrysler dealers.

Mr. Press, 62 years old, is expected to leave Chrysler by the end of November, according to one of the people informed of the plan.

Jim Press Chrysler CEOReached on his cellphone, Mr. Press said, "I don't think anything has been released about management changes." He declined further comment.

A Chrysler spokesman declined to comment.

The departure comes two months after Mr. Marchionne's initial management shakeup, which created a flatter structure of 23 executives, including Mr. Press, reporting directly to him.

In his current position, Mr. Press -- unlike the three executives in charge of the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands -- doesn't have any direct operational control over departments that Mr. Marchionne is concentrating on to lead the turnaround.

"The thing about Jim Press is he presided over one of the biggest automotive expansions in corporate history at Toyota," said Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight. "To throw him into a crisis situation like Chrysler may not be the perfect environment for him. He's not a turnaround guy."

Mr. Press's exit will end a tough two-year run at Chrysler. Hired by Chrysler's former owner Cerberus Capital Management LP in September 2007, Mr. Press came in with high expectations as one of the top auto executives.

In his 37-year career at Toyota, the Kansas native became a powerful figure, exerting influence over all aspects of Toyota's U.S. sales unit and building a strong reputation among auto dealers. Eventually, he became the first non-Japanese elected to the company's board of directors.

Mr. Press's high standing among dealers was expected to help Chrysler win support among dealers to shrink its network. His deep knowledge of Toyota's corporate culture was seen as an asset to Chrysler.

At Chrysler, Mr. Press started working to revamp the way the company developed new models, but after only a few months his relationship with then CEO Bob Nardelli became strained, said people familiar with the matter.

As the company's financial troubles deepened in 2008 and early 2009, Mr. Press continued to work with the auto maker's dealers, but he played a smaller role in more strategic issues, they said. The search for alliance partners and talks with Fiat, for example, were led by Vice Chairman Tom LaSorda and Mr. Nardelli, these people said.

Mr. Press lost credibility among dealers after he came out in January and February to rally dealers to order more cars and trucks, saying that would help the company survive. Many did, but Chrysler still filed for bankruptcy, leaving dealers who loaded up their lots with cars and trucks that became difficult to sell.

Mr. Press ran afoul of dealers again in June when Chrysler dropped 789 of them from its retail network as part of its bankruptcy organization. At that time, he called the dealership cuts the "most difficult business decision" of his career.

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