The Survivors

Bob Carter

Toyota's Bob Carter feeling the pressure

The past few years have been unusually tumultuous for the automotive industry and in typical corporate fashion, when times are tough heads roll.  A few days ago I posted photos that I have taken over the past few years of auto execs who have since lost their jobs.  GM and Chrysler were heavily represented in that rogues gallery because they have undergone the most drastic changes, what with the government-guided restructurings that the two companies endured.

Times were tough for everybody, of course, but some corporate chiefs were spared the hatchet.  One notable example is Bob Carter, pictured above, Group Vice President and General Manager of the Toyota Division of Toyota Motor Sales of U.S.A.  The picture was taken during the press introduction of the new Avalon at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show.

If Carter looks stressed out, he had good reason.

After a half-hearted, perfunctory introduction of Toyota’s flagship car, Carter invited the press up to the stand for questions, knowing that no one was going to ask about the Avalon.  His company was in the midst of a public relations nightmare after a steady drip, drip, drip – actually more of a deluge – of reports of out-of-control Toyotas frightening, injuring and even killing people.

Unfortunately it wasn’t just the phantom sudden acceleration issue. There has been a steady stream of recall headlines, from drive shaft failures on Tacoma pickups, to Sienna minivans dropping their spare tires, to stability control issues on large SUVs and more.

As bad as all that was, things were going to get even worse.  An earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March of 2011 would decimate a number of Toyota’s production and distribution facilities in Japan and just as the company was recovering from that, floods in Thailand knocked out  production facilities there.

The result:  Sales fell, market share plummeted and the 2011 profit forecast was slashed.

Akio Toyoda

Akio Toyoda still at the helm of his family's company

Perhaps because he handled all of this so well, or perhaps because Japan’s corporate ethos treats employees with greater respect than might be true in other cultures, Carter is still on the job.  Also still in place is Toyota president Akio Toyoda who had the misfortune to have been elevated to that position just before all of this hell broke loose for his family’s company.

Alan Mulally

Ford's Alan Mulally

Compared to GM and Chrysler, the past two years have been a walk in the park for Ford.  After an embarrassing appearance before Congress with fellow Detroit execs, Alan Mulally said “fuggedaboutit” and decided that his company would take its chances in the market place.  The gamble seems to have paid off so far.  Ford’s sales bounced back from the recession more quickly than GM’s or Chrysler’s, the mountain of debt is shrinking and the company’s stock may return to investment grade soon.

Mark Fields and Derrick Kuzak

Mark Fields and Derrick Kuzak are all smiles

Unlike the other Detroit honchos that I’ve photographed over the past few years, every one of Ford’s execs is still on the job and you can even snag pictures of them smiling.

Sergio Marchionne

Sergio Marchionne after his company acquired Chrysler

Sergio Marchionne joined the board of Fiat in 2003 and was appointed CEO in 2004.  When the U.S. government handed beleaguered Chrysler over to the company in 2009, Marchionne became CEO of Chrysler, as well.  He is still there, of course, and as his influence on the company’s products filters into showrooms, Chrysler’s sales are surging.  He and his rumpled sweaters will likely be showing up at auto shows for some time to come.

Dieter Zetsche

Daimler's Dieter Zetsche, you may remember him as Dr. Z

Dieter Zetsche became a familiar face in the U.S. when he appeared as Dr. Z in cartoonish television commercials for Chrysler back in the bad old days when Daimler owned it.  He is still Chairman of Daimler AG and I just happened to snag this photo of him in Detroit last January.  He still looks a bit cartoonish.

A Kia Hamster

A Kia Hamster schmoozing at a car show

The Kia hamsters first appeared in television commercials and on youtube some three years ago to promote the then-new Soul.  They were a huge hit and a brilliant marketing move and we will likely see more of them.  And they have lasted longer than some GM CEOs of late.

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