Goodbye Toyota, Hello Chrysler

The departure of Toyota Motor North America President Jim Press from the No.1 Japanese auto maker may come as a shock, but won't slow the company's growth, analysts tell Ward's. Toyota's No.1 American executive likely wanted to get back to his roots by being involved in the sales and marketing side of the business, dealers and analysts say. Press, who joined Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. in 1970,

The departure of Toyota Motor North America President Jim Press from the No.1 Japanese auto maker may come as a shock, but won't slow the company's growth, analysts tell Ward's.

Toyota's No.1 American executive likely wanted to get back to his roots by being involved in the sales and marketing side of the business, dealers and analysts say.

Press, who joined Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. in 1970, says in a statement: “Toyota has been the centerpiece of my life. This was the most difficult decision I have made, but I am truly looking forward to an exciting new chapter in my career.”

He becomes co-vice chairman and co-president of Chrysler LLC, titles he will share with Chrysler's Tom LaSorda. Both will answer to CEO Robert Nardelli.

Press is the only non-Japanese executive to ever sit on Toyota's board of directors and the second high-profile Toyota executive that Chrysler, under the new ownership of private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, has lured away in recent weeks.

Deborah Wahl Meyer, former head of marketing for Toyota's luxury Lexus division in the U.S., was named Chrysler's new chief marketing officer.

Unlike Meyer, whose career spanned a number of Detroit-based auto makers before joining Toyota, Press — except for a short stint at Ford Motor Co. — has been with the Japanese car maker since its sales were listed in the “Others” category.

Under his leadership, Toyota today ranks No.2 in sales in the U.S. It also is No.1 globally in terms of vehicle output.

“Symbolically, this has got to be a blow (to Toyota),” David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says of Press' jump to Chrysler.

However, he points out that in typical Toyota fashion, the company already has a replacement, current TMNA Executive Vice President Shigeru Hayakawa.

Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting, says Press' last Toyota job took him away from the sales and marketing side of the business that he loved.

“He was several steps away from the action on a daily basis, and this new job puts him right back in the thick of things.” Phillippi says. “Jim's a sales guy. Toyota's a manufacturing company that happens to sell cars.”

In his new job, Press will oversee Chrysler's North American and international sales, as well as global marketing and “strengthening and energizing the dealer body,” he says in an official Chrysler release.

Cole says Press' rapport with dealers will come in handy at Chrysler.

Both Cole and Phillippi believe Press would not have risen to the rank of president at Toyota in Japan, despite being named senior managing director in April.

Cole says Toyota likely is grooming a Toyoda family member (Akio, son of honorary chairman Shoichiro) to replace current CEO Katsuaki Watanabe.

“Maybe (Press) realized he had bumped into the rice-paper ceiling, so to speak,” Phillippi says. “You only can go so far as a non-Japanese…and non-manufacturing guy.”

One Toyota dealer says Press probably wanted to get back to a position that would put him in contact with dealers.

“There has been talk among dealers who knew Jim well that he wanted to return to a position of sales and dealer leadership,” says Douglas Kool of Kool Toyota in Grand Rapids, MI.

Jim Dunn, general manager of JM Lexus of Margate, FL, the nation's leading Lexus sales-volume store, says Press “always has liked challenges and may have felt Chrysler offers more of a challenge in the years ahead.”

Bob Germain of Bob Germain Toyota and Lexus in Columbus, OH, says: “He gave 37 years to us and was an inspiring leader and role-model.”

Dealer Carl Galeana of the Galeana Automotive Group with Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep stores in North Carolina, Florida and Michigan, says, “It goes to show how fast Cerberus is working to make Chrysler a solid company.”

Galeana is intrigued why Press would leave Toyota after 37 years.

“That's the million dollar question,” he says. “He's 60 years old and relatively young and sees this as a big opportunity. And you figure he is going to be paid a lot of money at Chrysler.”

Dealer Douglas Durnin of A.K. Durnin Chrysler Jeep in Baton Rouge, LA, says, “A lot of the questions about Chrysler's direction have been answered. There are still some unknowns, but the news is good.”
with Cliff Banks, Steve Finlay and Mac Gordon

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