Wild-Ass Speculation Of The Day: Was Jim Press The Man Who Knew Too Much?
In September of 2007, Jim Press surprised the automotive world by leaving Toyota to become president of Chrysler LLC. Press, the first non-Japanese member of the Toyota board of directors, was generally considered to be a major factor in Toyota’s North American success, and his move still has people scratching their heads. It’s been generally assumed that Chrysler’s then owner, Cerberus, promised him a big pile of money. That assumption seems to be reinforced by Press’ inability to pay $1.35 million in debt and taxes last September, which he attributed to bonuses not received due to Chrysler’s meltdown. Still, regardless of the merits of working for the strugling Auburn Hills automaker, leaving Toyota in the first place seemed like a poor career choice.
Press wasn’t the only high ranking Toyota executive that left the company in the second half of 2007. Deborah Wahl Meyer, who was in charge of Lexus marketing, jumped to Chrysler a month before Press. In October of that year, Jim Farley left Toyota to be in charge of marketing at Ford.
Their timing seemed odd.
Toyota was at the top of their game. Chrysler was already financially troubled and Ford had recently mortgaged the entire company, down to the blue oval logo, for $26 billion in cash needed to turn the company around. Though Farley seems secure at Ford, neither Meyer nor Press remains at Chrysler. Why would a number of very successful executives leave well-paid, very secure jobs for much riskier propositions?
Sometimes it’s best to jump ship even before it starts taking on any water.
Though I’m generally an unintended acceleration skeptic, thinking it’s usually driver error, obviously people within Toyota believe it to be a mechanical issue. Irv Miller, a Press lieutenant now safely retired, sent out an email this past January 16, just days before Toyota issued a recall. When it issued the recall, Toyota notified NHTSA that they had started receiving field reports of sticky throttles as early as March 2007.
Call me a conspiracy theorist (which would be funny because I’m allergic to conspiracy theories), but maybe Press, Meyer and Farley knew that the fecal material was about to hit the rotary cooling device. Sure, at first it’s a bit of a stretch to think that high level executives would be aware of low level field reports, but those reports were about the recently launched Tundra pickup truck.
The Tundra wasn’t just another Toyota. The all-new 2007 Tundra was Toyota’s point blank shot at Detroit’s bread and butter full size pickups. Though Toyota had long had its finger on the pulse of American car consumers, the pickup market was a tougher nut to crack. After missing the mark twice, first with the T-100 and then with the first generation Tundra, Toyota invested billions into the Tundra. It’s generally accepted that it costs about $1 billion to design, engineer and produce a new car or light truck. Throw in a new engine and transmission, and you can figure doubling that amount. Toyota also built an entirely new assembly plant in Texas specifically for the Tundra, and they also invested about $1 billion in their Ann Arbor R&D center that did most of the engineering and design work on the ’07 Tundra.
So there was a lot riding on the ’07 Tundra, and Toyota is a company that made its bones on statistical quality control. On a high profile, mission critical project like the Tundra, it’s not inconceivable that high level executives would be in the loop on all quality control issues.
Miller’s retirement was announced along with the pending departure of two other long term Toyota NA executives, Steve Sturm, and Dave Danzer, last December, about a month before he wrote that email. In light of Miller’s email and the subsequent recall and crisis at Toyota, it’s easy to guess at the reasons for those retirements. It’s possible, though, that previous retirements at Toyota, going back as far as 2007, may also be related to the company’s management of the problem.
Meanwhile, what are we to make of Press’s recent, post-recall assessment that Toyota “was hijacked, some years ago, by anti-family, financially oriented pirates”?
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.
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