By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007
James E. Press, the American car executive who helped build Toyota Motor into an automotive powerhouse that brought only pain to Detroit, yesterday was named a president and vice chairman at Chrysler.
The hiring of Press, 60, was widely described as a coup for Cerberus Capital Management, the private-equity firm that bought a controlling interest in Chrysler this year and has stacked the automaker's corporate suite with high-profile executives.
In August, Cerberus named Robert L. Nardelli, the hard-driving former Home Depot boss, to be Chrysler's chairman and chief executive. The company also appointed a new director, Andreas Schell, to oversee its three-year restructuring plan and lured a new chief marketing officer, Deborah Wahl Meyer, from Toyota's Lexus division.
Press will take charge of Chrysler's U.S. and international sales, marketing, product development and dealer relations. Thomas W. LaSorda, Chrysler's chief executive before the sale, will continue to hold the titles of president and vice chairman -- the same ones as Press.
Press, in 37 years at Toyota, presided over the Japanese automaker's U.S. sales as it passed Chrysler and then Ford Motor to become No. 2 in U.S. vehicle sales.
Press, a promoter of gas-electric hybrids, helped fashion an image of environmental sensitivity for Toyota with the Prius sedan even as the company steadily expanded production and sales of large trucks and sport-utility vehicles.
The ongoing slowdown in truck and SUV sales caught General Motors, Ford and Chrysler by surprise, causing the companies to lose billions of dollars. Toyota and Detroit's other Japanese rivals have kept their focus on small and mid-size passenger cars, a strategy that is helping them clobber Detroit.
The three Detroit companies have been slashing costs. They are also formulating a strategy for survival in the United States, overhauling brands and rethinking product plans. The industry will look to Press, widely considered one of the auto world's most charismatic and articulate executives, to help put Chrysler on course.
"He is exactly what you think he is -- he is a game-raiser," said an industry executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works for a competitor.
An analyst said Chrysler could use Press's expertise to improve relations with its dealers. "Chrysler has been at war with its dealers," said Mark Rikess, chief executive of the Rikess Group, a consulting firm in Burbank, Calif. "They've been building a lot of the wrong products and forcing the products down dealers' throats. There's been tremendous animosity among Chrysler dealers."
In a written statement, Press said he relished the opportunity to "be part of the resurgence of a true American icon here and around the world." Press is to begin his job at Chrysler on Sept. 17.
Chrysler would not say how much Press will be paid and, as a private company, doesn't have to.