By on July 17, 2018

Never meet your heroes, the saying goes, which suggests that maybe these relative strangers we put on a pedestal to gaze at in awe and admiration are actually shallow, flawed creatures in real life. Who knows how disappointed I’d have been had I met my childhood hero. Frankly, I’m not even sure who that would be.

Tom Selleck, perhaps.

In the automotive realm, there’s no shortage of choice in company leaders who, for whatever reason, stand out as someone to be admired. Present day or past, these leaders’ innovation, bold decision making, and personal flair (or perhaps notoriety) stir something inside us.

Who’s the automotive top dog you can’t help but feel inspired by? 

Step up to the buffet. Alan Mulally of Ford still sees plenty of mentions in our TTAC Slack conversations, and for good reason. The man knew how to guide a ship through heavy seas.

Perhaps Mary Barra is your preferred role model. As the first female CEO of a major automaker, Barra cracked the glass ceiling, ensuring a steady flow of GM crossovers that continues to gush forth to this day. Then again, maybe one of the many Toyodas is the leader you want in your wheelhouse. After all, how can we even broach this subject without mentioning the decision to green-light the XV10 Camry?

Too recent? How about George Romney’s decision to pursue a low-cost compact strategy at American Motors at the height of Detroit excess? Too bland? Maybe John Z. DeLorean’s life is the one for you.

I’ll never stop being enthralled by Lee Iacocca’s handling of Chrysler during its triage days at the turn of the 1980s, as well as the heady, platform-stretching period that followed. The man gave us the minivan and approximately fifty trillion models based on a single, carefully proportioned compact car. Not to mention the Viper, cab-forward sedans, and a Grand Cherokee for Americans aspire to. And how about those ads? It’s hard to dislike a good pitchman.

So, as we endure headlines about CEOs (well, one in particular) behaving badly, which figure from today or yesterday do you hold up above all others?

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

87 Comments on “QOTD: A CEO to Call Your Own?...”


  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Well I have met Tom Selleck, and he was a really nice guy. Not disappointed at all.

    As for the CEO of an automotive manufacturer. 1) Sir William Lyons, co-founder, Managing Director and chief stylist for Jaguar. Responsible on a limited budget for a number of iconic cars. 2) Gordon Grundy (ex CEO of Studebaker Canada), the different avenues he explored to keep the organization viable and to make profit with limited production was truly remarkable, and would have worked if not for the sabotage of the Board of Directors.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought you were going to tell us you’d met William Lyons, the way you led into it with Tom Selleck.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Here are just some examples of Grundy’s innovation (From Driving.ca). The Studebaker Hamilton plant required only the manufacture and sale of 20,000 cars per year to break even.

      “Studebaker president Gordon Grundy came up with a plan to raise money. Volkswagen Canada was founded in 1952 to import cars from Germany — three years before its American counterpart was established — but had to pay stiff duty on them. Under the terms of the new Auto Pact trade agreement of 1965, Studebaker, deemed a Canadian automaker, could import vehicles duty-free.

      The two companies inked a deal. Studebaker bought cars from Germany, imported them at no charge, and then sold them to Volkswagen Canada with a markup below what VW would have paid the government.

      Grundy also approached Datsun for a similar deal with distribution to the U.S., until a Studebaker board member in New York mentioned it to a partner in his law firm. The partner, Richard Nixon — yes, that Nixon — told him to talk to Toyota instead, and Grundy was called off the Datsun meeting. Toyota said no, and after being snubbed, Datsun refused to continue the discussion.”

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      Not to downplay Lyons’ achievements, but he gained some notoriety for doing whatever he could to stop anything he perceived as a threat to Jaguar.

      1. He prevented development of the Alvis/Rover BS mid-engined sports car and the Rover P9 production version.

      2. He killed the large Rover P8 sedan because it was too close to the XJ6, even though it was already in the tooling stage.

      3. He bought the Daimler marque, turning it into badge-engineered Jaguars.

      4. He saw to it that the excellent 4.5-liter Daimler V8 was never used in a production Jaguar, even though it was lighter and much more powerful than the Jaguar 3.8/4.2 Six.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “I’ll never stop being enthralled by Lee Iacocca’s handling of Chrysler during its triage days at the turn of the 1980s, ”

    unfortunately, as is said so often, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Thus why Lido clung to old man Brougham-tastic BS like vinyl roofs, gold striping, upright grilles, and wire wheels long after everyone who those cars appealed to went into assisted living.

  • avatar
    ernest

    He may go into the “Raising Public Money for Private Sector” Hall of Fame too.

  • avatar
    ernest

    James Ward Packard… or his brother William. They successfully founded a Car Company on the premise that someone really could do a better job building a quality product. For the next 50 years, Packard threaded it’s way profitably through two World Wars and the Great Depression, while never wavering from a very simple corporate motto- “Ask the man who owns one.”

    The difference between Pre and Post WWII was very simple. During the Depression, Packard managed to market medium priced cars without sacrificing the aspirational value of the Packard Brand. After WWII, it all went away in spectacular fashion.

    • 0 avatar

      They dipped too low in those desperate times, and lost their image. Afterward, they clung to the past in a country which had moved on.

      • 0 avatar
        ernest

        The founders didn’t- they passed before the accountants & lawyers took over. Packard’s were Engineers, and understood product. The group that followed them wrote the script Cadillac followed years later.

        * I swear Marcedes Benz is following this path currently. Wonder who’s going to replace them?

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          On a broadly similar note: Henry Martyn Leland. Cared about quality, doesn’t seem to have been a sociopath, which gave him two legs up on a lot of CEOs. (Grain of salt: I have a far less than firm understanding of the tax claims that were Lincoln’s undoing.)

          I agree that in some ways Mercedes, for a time, filled a void in the US market left by the Three P’s.

        • 0 avatar
          KevinB

          +1 for you, Earnest! It appears that the Mercedes-Benz leadership are graduates of the Roger Smith school of (mis)management.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    I am going to stick my discussion to automotive luminaries.

    John Z. DeLorean’s life certainly classifies as the Icarus that flew too high and crashed and burned as a consequence. Fascinating but not my cup of tea.

    A man that had the vision and energy to for what would become the World’s largest corporation, William Crapo Durant deserves consideration.
    But the distinction in skillfully nurturing Durant’s dream, is definitively Alfred P Sloan’s.

    On the other side of the pond we have the incredibly colorful characters of Enzo Ferrari and Gianni Agnelli. They both embody the Italian flair.

    And of course, Sochihiro Honda, and its relentless pursuit in creating one of the World’s largest producer of internal combustion engines, along with reputed automobile and motorcycle brands.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @schmitt trigger: Durant Motors’ ex-Head Office building still stands on Laird Avenue just south of Eglinton in the Leaside area of Toronto. And the self-storage facility on Laird has a restored Durant Motors vehicle.

      http://leasidelife.com/big-plans-for-the-old-durant-site/

      Like your list, including the oft overlooked Mr. Honda.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatic

      Mr Honda would be my hands down pick. Started the company from nothing and dominated motorcycles and then went into cars. Innovations such as CVCC kept the company at the forefront of technology.

      Also someone should mention Henry Ford II. Problem is he was great for 20 or so years and then not so good. Took a company fast on the way to bankruptcy and turned it around. Won LeMons to show Enzo up. Of course there was the Edsel and firing of Iacocca.

    • 0 avatar
      flyf2d

      Yup Mr Honda would be a good one to meet but my pick would be Colin Chapman, founder of lotus.
      There were rumors he was still alive, a bunch of the money the British Government poured into DeLorean was reportedly not accounted for and funding CCAB’s exile in Brazil…

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    No but did meet the then Chief Engineer and Chief Designer for Aston-Martin during a weekend visit to their Newport-Pagnell plant.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    The choice is obvious; Bob Nardelli.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The CEO of SpaceX, of course.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Johann DeNysschen!

    (I’m a sucker for coffee.)

  • avatar
    brettucks

    Preston Tucker – not the most successful or longest serving but inspiring none-the-less.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    My short list includes Bob Lutz, Iaccoca, and William Durant. But for pure impact you have to go with DeLorean during his Pontiac days. Tilting at automotive windmills from inside GM was risky, but DeLorean did it with a forcefulness that the brass hats couldn’t combat. Dropping a solid-lifter 389 in a puny Tempest was the defining moment of the American auto industry in the ’60’s, a move that reverberates to this day. Dodge in 2018 should pay royalties to his estate.
    DeLorean’s later antics, like plastic surgery, sex orgies, coke dealing, and being the third phase of the Tucker/Bricklyn/DeLorean/Musk crapshow, are not part of this evaluation.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Henry Ford? I mean, really, I didn’t like the man’s politics, but he sure knew how to run a car company

    • 0 avatar

      His efforts to control the rubber market were a bit less successful.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        His social experiments were the things of horror movies as well, but he knew how to build a lot of cheap cars, fast and that’s what the world really wanted

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Well, the $5-a-day wage wasn’t a bad social experiment.

          He was a deeply flawed individual, without a doubt, but unlike Willam Durant, he didn’t buy his way into an automotive empire, he built it. (Yes, he did buy the Lincoln brand, but the rest was his own.)

          Had Edsel Ford lived, I believe he would be a top contender for this list. Far fewer of Henry’s faults, but with similar drive and ambition.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            There were a lot of strings attached to that $5 a day. You had to lead an exemplary life subject to random inspections, fun, huh?

          • 0 avatar
            bullnuke

            Edsel Ford was truly gone too soon. Henry the Deuce, however, should have remained elsewhere IMHO.

    • 0 avatar

      His stubbornness cost Ford dearly. Not sure he knew what he was doing.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    It is telling that no one has yet mentioned German auto entrepreneurs and engineers.

    There are many noteworthy individuals, but the one that had a quite storied life and reputation, along with creating one of the World’s best sport and performance automobile companies, Ferdinand Porsche is hard to beat.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Mary Barra at Guangzhou/Guadalajara Motors, natch.

  • avatar
    Lockstops

    Herbert Quandt, Nicola Romeo and Enzo Ferrari but with a time machine rather than in heaven. Quandt formed the basis for God’s Chariot to enter this world and made BMW into what it’s milking to this day. Nicola Romeo is especially interesting in how he got such great people together to achieve great results. Much of Italian automotive legends got their start at Alfa Romeo during his tenure or was ‘spun off’ from that environment.

    Horatio Pagani I already met, and there is no doubt Carlos Ghosn is going down in history as a management and automotive icon.

    Sergio Marchionne isn’t best known for it, but he has in fact resurrected Alfa Romeo and hopefully Maserati is on the rise too. This effort was more than just developing a few new cars, they have completely restructured their distribution network (for all of the European brands at least). The whole company’s outlook is upwards, and though it is a monumental effort I believe his practices are sound, that they will get Fiat’s resurrection to continue as well as getting the Chrysler arm’s (including Dodge) operations providing the always coveted ‘synergy’ :) Chrysler has many strengths but needs a new strategy, and looking at their operations right now it looks like that is on the drawing board while they keep on with a sound effort on their existing model lineup.

    So while people are focusing on the anticipation of FCA being sold, in the meantime the company is on the rise.

    A lot of American names here so far but I wouldn’t put (most of) their contributions even on the positive side: lots of amazing automotive achievements over the years but that’s thanks to great engineers etc. and more like in spite of the horrible management.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Preston Tucker.

    Disc brakes, lexan glass, safety belts and many more safety inovations that are standard today

  • avatar
    HaveNissanWillTravel

    I had the joy of meeting David E. Davis of Automobile Magazine in their offices in Ann Arbor back in 1993. Although not a CEO of an automotive company, he sure knew all.

    Great guy by the way, very cordial and gave me an impromptu tour of the whole place.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Erret Lobban Cord.

    Someone who could bring Auburn back from bankruptcy into their glory days, give us the L-29, 810, and 812 Cord, and helm Duesenberg thru the J and SJ is somebody I’d really love to meet.

  • avatar
    TW5

    Soichiro Honda

    Definitely one of the biggest car nuts and motorcycle nuts in the history of the business

  • avatar
    FWD Donuts

    Hank the Deuce. Installed modern management methods at a floundering FoMoCo. Cars like the Mustang were developed under his watch. Ran Ferrari out of LeMans with the GT40 after Enzo backed out of a deal to be acquired. Had a really hot wife. Would get plastered and pinball a Shelby Mustang, Continental, or whatever expensive company car he wanted out of the executive fleet off a bunch of others in the Detroit Athletic Club parking lot on his way home — and told anybody who brought it up to F off.

    He’d stub a Cuban out on Elon’s forehead if they ever met.

  • avatar
    Dilrod

    Edsel Ford. What he did manage to accomplish under the crushing thumb of his father was remarkable, thinking of the Model A and the Lincoln. If the old man had left him alone I believe he would’ve taken Ford to some remarkable heights.

    There’s a lot we’ll never know. Henry II had his papers burned.

  • avatar
    FWD Donuts

    Roger Smith. I’ve always liked squeaky voiced spreadsheet jockeys whose taste buds were in their backside.

  • avatar
    FWD Donuts

    Jac Nasser. Spent money like my ex-wife. The Explorer, which he had nothing to do with, made billions — which he promptly flushed on stuff like Stewart Grand Prix. Once canned, never considered for another CEO role again just like Carly Fiorina.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I saw a stuntman that looked like Morgan Freeman.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    The K-Car platform-share was an awesome design concept, right for the times. The cars were crappy, but that’s a different story.

    But to bank their entire future on them (or similar), was short sided. This is America. K-Cars were a good for a “side-act”. But to kill off all V8 and or RWD cars?

    No more Ramcharger (fullsize Bronco/Blazer class), except in Mexico, no more Fury taxi/cop cars, and I’m not sure Dodge pickups had a future, as neglected and outdated as they were by the late ’80s.

    They put all their pickup money on the Dakota, but when the Bronco II grew a pair (of doors, or “Explorer” redesign) and the S-10 blazer did too, no Dakota based SUV, not right away.

    But the Viper came out to solve everything. At what point did they fire Iacocca? It wasn’t soon enough.

  • avatar
    MoparRocker74

    Ralph Gilles. He’s not a CEO, but still carries a lot of clout within FCA. He’s the father of the LX cars and has considerable input on a good many of FCA’s products over the years. Most importantly, he’s a true car guy and has passion for what he does. If it were up to me, he’d be replacing the Black Sweater. On a side note, this is anecdotal but various Mopar fans claim to have met him and he’s known as a gracious person. Just an all around stand up guy, measured by any yardstick.

    • 0 avatar
      HeeeeyJake

      I agree x1000. He is even gracious and active on Twitter.

      I hope the Agnelli family or whoever is really in charge has the sense to put Gilles in marchiones place upon the latter’s retirement, if he is as suitable for the job as we both think he is.

  • avatar
    StudeDude

    I nominate the Dodge Brothers. John and Horace Dodge started out in their machine shop supplying Henry Ford with drive trains for his cars. Ford was on his 3rd company by that time, having failed in 2 other ventures. The Dodge Brothers were paid with Ford stock since Henry could not pay with cash in the beginning. Eventually, they started their own company and their cars became famous for their durability. Both brothers died in 1920 and the company continued as a bank run holding until Walter Chrysler bought the highly desirable company and factory as part of his expansion plan in 1928.

    • 0 avatar
      HeeeeyJake

      Wrote a paper on this topic after reading g a story in an uncle John’s bathroom reader. Fascinating, and is the untold story of Ford as a pre-River Rouge company.

      Those brothers turned $10,000 of stock into 25 million dollars in about 20 years. Literally the best business deal in history by certain metrics. And they built like 90% of the model T content at one point and finally said, “we aren’t getting paid our worth, and we’re having to fight Ford for what we are owed, and our name is nowhere on the product. [Eff this].”

  • avatar
    HeeeeyJake

    Too many good answers, but in an alternate reality it would be Maximum Bob Lutz at Chrysler Corp 1993-present.

    Hopefully Gilles is Lutz 2.0 and we will get to see it play out this time.

  • avatar

    I would nominate another Italian, good one, Lew Veraldi. He took risk and turned around and saved Ford in 80s leading Taurus project. Then he become VP but was snubbed by Ford executives who eventually ruined company again.

    Other nomination – “bad Italian” Ron Zarrella. He was modern day Commodus.

  • avatar
    NOSLucasWiringSmoke

    Walter Chrysler had a fascinating story. Grew up in a railroading family, started at the bottom in that industry and rose to mid-to-upper level management (running American Locomotive Company’s shops) before catching the auto bug (he bought a $5,000 Locomobile when he only had $700, borrowing the rest) and leveraging his reputation for excellent management to running Buick at GM, which he did with great success despite having much more expensive product than Ford. Left GM when Durant came back in in 1917-20 and he didn’t like the direction GM was taking, turned around two other companies that were in trouble, built one of them (Maxwell) into Chrysler.

    Under his leadership Chrysler launched innovative products, leveraged the Dodge purchase to expand their capacity, started two new brands (DeSoto and Plymouth) to cover the market comprehensively, all with great success. He backed an engineering team that innovated constantly through the 1920s and 1930s. Chrysler overtook Ford as the second largest auto company in 1936 and stayed in that position until 1951.

    Unfortunately, Chrysler’s health failed in the late ’30s (he died in 1940 at 65) and his successors were much more conservative (possibly partly scared into it by the Airflow debacle); they ran the company very efficiently through the early ’50s (in a 1947 Fortune article Chrysler was touted as one of the best-run companies in the industry on a financial basis) but product started to stagnate and that caused a disaster by 1953-54.

  • avatar
    NOSLucasWiringSmoke

    Another suggestion: Charles Nash. Started as an unwanted child (his parents divorced when he was six and neither wanted him, the court bound him over to a farmer basically as an indentured farmhand), started in the carriage industry stuffing cushions at Durant-Dort, where his hard work and intelligence led him to management. He transitioned with Durant to General Motors as an executive, and was president of the company from about 1911-16. When it became evident that Durant was on his way back to power, Nash didn’t want to stay there. His reputation for good management got him enough financial backing to buy the Thos. B. Jeffery company from the owning family (one of Thos. B’s sons had survived the Lusitania torpedoing in 1915 and was no longer interested in the business). He grew that company greatly and made not only great profits but excellent products throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Nash was the only automaker besides GM to not lose money in 1932, the darkest year of the Depression, and the big straight-eight senior Nashes of that era were easily the equal of any car short of the rarified atmosphere of Duesenberg and the upper-range Cadillacs and Packards.

    Nash also made what was probably one of the best succession planning choices you can find in the industry by picking George Mason as his successor, going to the extent of merging Nash with Kelvinator (where Mason was president) to secure Mason’s services because Nash recognized what an excellent executive Mason was. Charles Nash retired from active management in the late ’30s, leaving Nash in probably the strongest financial and product position of any independent except maybe Packard.

  • avatar
    MyerShift

    Iacocca, without a doubt.
    Mustang to minivans, he really did some neat things (but over-extending the K car (1990+) without enough technological advancement (MPI, DOHC 16V, etc. never came, too much brougham) and handing the reigns of Ma Mopar over to Eaton instead of Lutz are not among them).

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Ol Shel: Not picking on you, but your feet have rev matching too. It may not work too smoothly at first, but the more...
  • AK: Better question is how many engines do you want to pay for in that out of warranty GT350?
  • Ol Shel: Last chance to get a manual. Better buy up, folks. Next gen will be a hybrid with CVT, and then you get a...
  • tankinbeans: It’s available in the USA. I found the little screen showing when cylinders 1 and 4 were off. The...
  • tane94: Love love love that big brute in red! Glad to see some real color besides the white, grey, black schemes that...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber