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
Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.