Look Who's in Charge

Chrysler Group Chief Operating Officer Tom W. LaSorda says his twin brother has done very, very well in a sales and marketing career. LaSorda jokes about having his identical pose as him at meetings with dealers. That way, the dealers, duly impressed, would think, Tom LaSorda sure knows a lot about sales and marketing. Tom LaSorda actually does know a lot about automotive sales and marketing and other

Chrysler Group Chief Operating Officer Tom W. LaSorda says his twin brother has done “very, very well” in a sales and marketing career. LaSorda jokes about having his identical pose as him at meetings with dealers.

That way, the dealers, duly impressed, would think, “Tom LaSorda sure knows a lot about sales and marketing.”

Tom LaSorda actually does know a lot about automotive sales and marketing — and other facets of the industry — as he demonstrates in a wide-ranging interview with Ward's.

Informative, too, during Ward's state of the industry interviews are Gary Cowger, General Motors Corp.'s president of North American operations, and Greg Smith, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas.

Starting on page 18 are stories on them as well as insights and such from top executives at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., American Honda Motor Co. and Nissan North America Inc.

What's interesting about the three domestic auto company executives is their careers started from points that would not have led to top auto jobs in the past.

That was then. Despite its titanic size and occasional inertia, the auto industry can change when it wants to. Or has to.

LaSorda and Cowger rose from the manufacturing side of the business. There was a time when factory guys could go only so far. They didn't rise to the top, as many of them have now, including James Padilla, Ford's chief operating officer, who takes over as president Feb. 1.

“I think we all got lucky,” says LaSorda. “Not too long ago, all of the major auto companies were run by finance guys.”

Yet manufacturing is a big bucket. Being able to tote it while managing a large unionized workforce, putting out quality products of a complicated nature by the millions and keeping costs from overflowing gets noticed these days.

LaSorda and Cowger during their factory stints earned the United Auto Workers' trust and respect. There was a time when that didn't matter much in the executive ranks, even though bitter and long strikes of yesteryear cost millions on a shockingly regular basis.

It matters now. Auto makers and the UAW work more as partners on a common mission than as adversaries at each other's throats. Executives who can work with unions, while not giving away the store, are valuable to the cause. More factory guys seem to have that touch.

Bridging the management-union gap comes easily for LaSorda. He says his father — “one of my heroes” — was in the labor movement in his hometown of Windsor, Ont., Canada.

LaSorda started his automotive career at General Motors and joined Chrysler five years ago. That's something else that wasn't done much in the old days of the Motor City, going from one auto maker to another.

Today it's fairly accepted, to the point that LaSorda even puts General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner on his heroes list. Wisely, he also puts Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche on it. And that twin brother.

Conversely, Cowger is a GM lifer. “I've been around 39 years,” he says of time served so far.

A Kansas boy, he joined GM as a co-op student in 1965 at an assembly plant in Kansas City.

Likewise, Smith has been with Ford for his entire run. The striking thing is how many different types of jobs he's held across the board.

The Toledo native joined Ford in 1973 as a 21-year-old engineer. Most auto engineers remain in that line of work or close to it throughout their careers.

But Smith went on to powertrain marketing, truck marketing, car marketing, product planning, advanced planning and strategic planning.

Then he switched gears and held a series of finance jobs. He was CEO of Ford Motor Credit for two years before assuming his current presidential post last April.

He sees Ford Credit and Ford Motor as closely aligned and driving business to each other. “They are better looked at together,” he says, taking a modern outlook.

Dealers deserve credit for changing with the times. Today's dealers are different than yesteryear's. So, too, are today's auto executives.

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business magazine.

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