Monday, August 6, 2007

The Nardelli Era Starts at The New Chrysler

David Kiley (Business Week)

Just back from the Chrysler press conference at which Bob Nardelli (right)was introduced as chairman and CEO. I counted at least four times that he put his hand on former CEO Tom LaSorda’s (left)shoulder or back as the two presented a love-in to fix Chrysler.

LaSorda is staying on as president and vice chairman. And I’ll have to be proved wrong. But I get the impression that LaSorda, whom Nardelli referred to as “Tommy” at one point, is in some way happy that Nardelli has come on to take the spotlight and pressure off him.

I’ve spent a little time around LaSorda the last few years. He has an ego, like any manager who gets to be CEO. But LaSorda also has a pragmatic, realistic side that I have seen come out too. With Cerberus Capital Management now controlling Chrysler, it was unlikely that LaSorda was going to run the show. He’d been handpicked by DaimlerChrysler chief Dieter Zetsche, and the two of them mangled Chrysler’s comeback over the last two years.

Bu they need LaSorda. The son of a Canadian Auto Worker, LaSorda is a key man in Chrysler negotiations right now. He is also a key guy with the network of plant managers and, increasingly, dealers. A manufacturing and production guy, LaSorda will also be a guy who focuses on one of Chrysler’s biggest shortcomings—product and design quality. And he can do so, backed up Nardelli’s well-known Six Sigma whip and without having to worry about the financial/accounting part of the job.

In football terms, I have gotten the idea that being the head coach is not as critical to LaSorda as it is to Nardelli, and that he is one of those guys who can happily step back to being, for example, the Defensive coordinator. LaSorda is happy to be in the car business. It’s his life. He knows what he, and they, can do now outside the glare of Wall Street and with the running room afforded the management team by being private. If he is successful in fixing the thing with Nardelli, he will become richer and probably see his stock rise to be CEO of another car company. In short, LaSorda seems to know that Nardelli can teach him some things and is humble enough to go back to school.

Nardelli can be a back-breaker to the managers who report to him. That’s his reputation. What we’ll be looking for is whether the unpleasant and somewhat humiliating exit from Home Depot last January translated into any management lessons to the former GE exec, or whether this opportunity to run Chrysler back into sustained profitability is all part of a revenge plan to prove Nardelli’s naysayers wrong.

It’s more than a coincidence that Cerberus reached out to Nardelli about the same time it found some $10 billion plus in debt sitting on the shelf with no buyers. Even with the debt markets suddenly sinking, there was tepid interest and enthusiasm for a debt tied to a Chrysler comeback.

Nardelli is a brand name manager, like him or not. And it appears that Cerberus felt that Nardelli’s well-known brand of operational discipline and back-breaking style is what is needed to hot-foot confidence in this turnaround idea…The New Chrysler.

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