Chrysler Thursday named longtime Toyota Motor executive Jim Press as vice-chairman and president, which analysts said showed Chrysler's new private owners were serious about a longer-term turnaround plan for the automaker.
Press, who spearheaded Toyota's recent fast growth in the U.S. market and became the first non-Japanese executive named to Toyota's board, will be responsible for Chrysler's sales, marketing and product strategy.
Press, 61, will report to Chrysler Chief Executive Bob Nardelli, a former Home Depot Inc chief executive named to head Chrysler in August days after Cerberus Capital Management took control of the automaker.
The defection of Press from Toyota after a 37-year career comes at a crucial time for the Japanese automaker, which is on the brink of overtaking Ford Motor Co as the second-largest player in the U.S. market.
Press will share the vice-chairman and president roles created at Chrysler last month with Tom LaSorda, a manufacturing expert who stepped down as CEO to make room for Nardelli.
Since Cerberus bought Chrysler, LaSorda's role at the automaker has been reduced, prompting speculation among analysts that LaSorda might leave the company once Chrysler signs a new labor contract with the United Auto Workers union.
But LaSorda has maintained that he intends to remain with Chrysler long-term and has signed a new employment contract. The appointment of Nardelli, a hard-charging executive with a reputation for cutting costs, surprised analysts and prompted concern among some Chrysler union workers about whether Cerberus was looking to shed assets for a quick profit on its $7.4 billion acquisition.
But by adding Press to the executive roster, Cerberus has shown that it means to hold onto the automaker and work on a longer-term restructuring strategy, analysts said.
"This is the kind of roster you would want to put together if you were looking to keep Chrysler in house for a while," Argus Research analyst Kevin Tynan said.
Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN Inc, said hiring Press could silence critics who had questioned whether Nardelli, an industry newcomer, could handle Chrysler's turnaround.
"I think the hiring of Press may redeem Cerberus a bit in the minds of people that thought they were going to chip away at costs and flip assets," Merkle said.
STRONGER TIES WITH DEALERS
Press won credit for Toyota's strong ties with its highly profitable dealer network, an area that has been a persistent problem for Chrysler.
Chrysler, under LaSorda and its former Daimler ownership, angered dealers last year by giving them more vehicles than they could sell and then saying it wanted to unload weaker franchises.
"Part of my new responsibilities will be strengthening and energizing the dealer body," Press said in a statement. "This is something I was passionate about at Toyota and will be passionate about at Chrysler."
Glenn Mercer, an independent consultant who watches the auto industry, said Press would bring relentless focus on business process discipline, continuous improvement and steadfastness of purpose that built Toyota in North America into a powerhouse.
"That will be especially valuable at Chrysler, which has a history of acting impulsively -- sometimes to its great advantage ... and sometimes to its great detriment," Mercer said.
Press was named president of Toyota's North American operations in May 2006 after a sex scandal prompted his Japanese predecessor to be recalled to Japan.
As Toyota's most visible non-Japanese manager, Press was also credited with helping to change the perception of Toyota as it added production capacity and jobs in North America.
His departure from Toyota comes as that company is engaged in a price war with Detroit automakers in the pickup truck segment to boost sales of its new Tundra pickup truck.
Press becomes the second prominent Toyota executive to join Chrysler's executive ranks in recent weeks. Last month, Chrysler hired Deborah Wahl Meyer, former vice president of marketing for Toyota's luxury Lexus division, as its chief marketing officer.
"It was a great move on Chrysler's part. We welcome Press to the Chrysler family as well as to the UAW," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said on Thursday.
Toyota named Shigeru Hayakawa, 53, a veteran of its public affairs and advertising departments, to replace Press as president of its North American operations.
"I was looking forward to (Press) playing a bigger role as a member of our management team, so I am sorry to see him leave," said Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe in a statement.