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Musk, Mulally steer auto industry to new paths

Musk and Mulally. It sounds like a law firm, but they're my pick for the two most influential people in the auto industry over the last 25 years.

One is a maverick. The other, a master of the turnaround.

But what they share is the belief you can do things better and more efficiently in the auto business.

(Read more: Vote for who you think made the biggest difference)

To mark CNBC's 25th anniversary, we've complied a list of the 200 people who had the greatest influence on business over the past 25 years.

Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images
Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors.

Sure, you can make an argument that the auto industry's other finalists have had a huge impact on their companies and the industry as a whole—heck, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne have shown that automakers from different regions can be brought together to make a stronger global competitor.

Still, for my money, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Ford CEO Alan Mulally have been more influential.

Musk: Making electric cars a reality

Think back to the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, when General Motors unveiled the Chevy Volt. At the time, most people said, "Wow, won't it be interesting if electric vehicles truly become a reality and not just an idea?"

Seven years later, electric vehicles are a reality, and they're slowly becoming more popular.

For that, you can thank Musk. Nearly every time the skeptics have scoffed at his plans for Tesla, he has proven them wrong.

They said electric vehicles wouldn't sell in big numbers. This year, Tesla will likely sell more than 35,000 vehicles, according to analyst estimates.

They said electric cars would sell only on the two coasts, mainly in California. There is now a Tesla Model S owner in all 50 states, and sales are growing in such places as Chicago, Denver and Dallas.

(Read more: The names that are shaping retail's revolution)

They said Tesla would be a niche automaker with limited impact on the industry.

Really?

Auto executives from General Motors to Mercedes-Benz to Toyota are closely watching its every move.

One last way to gauge Musk's impact on the auto industry—Tesla's staying power. The last time someone created an all-new automaker in the U.S. that lasted more than a few years was Walter P. Chrysler. He did it 89 years ago.

Mulally: Manufacturing mastermind

Don't be fooled by Mulally's persona as a humble Kansas boy who is fortunate to work with talented people at Ford. In the decades before Mulally became CEO in 2006, a lot of talented executives led Ford Motor, and few were able to corral the infighting, pettiness and dysfunctional relationships that turned Ford into a money losing operation in 2006.

How bad was Ford before Mulally?

(Read more: In clash of consumer goods titans, the standouts)

The automaker lost $12.7 billion in 2006, had virtually no presence in the fast-growing China market, and was a collection of poor performing brands—including Ford itself, which looked bloated and tired.

I remember going to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., back then and wondering if people were clueless about the sad state of their company.

Mulally came in, put his "One Ford" plan in place, and gradually cleaned up the blue oval. He sold off some brands, including Jaguar and Aston Martin. Others, like Mercury, he shut down. But most importantly, he made Ford a lean, focused and profitable automaker.

Thanks to Mulally's push to build assembly plants in China, Ford now has the top selling vehicle (the Focus) in that country. It is also the No. 5 automaker in China, selling almost 1 million vehicles there last year.

In short, Mulally taught an old dog plenty of new tricks. When was the last time somebody did that in the auto industry?

No GM execs make the cut

When you look back on the last 25 years in the auto business, so much that has happened has been linked to General Motors. That's not surprising since it has been either the world's largest or second-largest automaker every year since 1989.

But which of its leaders would you pick as one of the most influential people?

Dan Akerson? He recently stepped down as CEO after guiding the company from its first days of bankruptcy all the way through late last year.

What about former CEOs Ed Whitacre Jr. or Fritz Henderson? Sure, they were key figures as GM went in and out of bankruptcy. But despite the important roles each played, their impact was limited in time and scope.

Frankly, the one person at GM who had the biggest impact over the last 25 years was former chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner.

In the early '90s he was one of the key executives who helped GM plant a flag in China, where the company is now a dominant player making huge profits.

But after becoming CEO in 2000, Wagoner was too slow and ineffective in forcing GM to change. He alone was not the cause of GM sliding into bankruptcy, but he couldn't stop it.

It's more than a little ironic that GM has been a central focus of the auto industry for the last quarter century, and yet, it never had that one visionary figure who deserves to be part of the CNBC 25.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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