Chrysler Nabs Some Green Cred From Toyota

A surprise executive move hints at Chrysler's plans to get back in the black by boosting sales.

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Toyota has been a darling of environmentalists, ranking a close second to Honda in one group's rankings of the greenest automakers. Chrysler, by contrast, has been labeled Public Polluter No. 1 because of its rank at the bottom.

So the defection of industry leader Jim Press from Toyota to Chrysler comes as one of the most startling auto-industry moves of the decade. Press has worked at Toyota for 37 years and is the only American ever appointed to the Japanese company's board of directors. As much as any other individual, he's been responsible for Toyota's remarkable rise in North America, transforming the company into arguably the most influential automaker in the United States.

In addition to nurturing the Prius and several other hybrids, Press is a professed environmentalist who told me earlier this year that he walks to work and tries to leave a minimal impact on the Earth. "I'm most comfortable in a rural environment where there's no negative impact on the environment," he said.

So why in the world is Press heading to Detroit?

Cerberus Capital Management has been instituting shock therapy at the No. 3 domestic carmaker since it took Chrysler private earlier this summer. It hired a CEO, Bob Nardelli, the controversial former head of Home Depot, who is a management expert but admits he knows little about cars. The company has split with General Motors and Ford on a key negotiating point with the auto workers union, a possible sign of forthcoming fireworks. And by luring Press from Toyota, Chrysler has nabbed an executive who has helped craft long-term strategy at one of the world's most successful companies.

Press leaves Toyota on the eve of a giant party—the company is poised to eclipse GM as the world's largest carmaker, perhaps by the end of the year. But his duties at Chrysler won't necessarily be to replicate successes like the Prius. As the new president of Chrysler and a vice chairman, Press's job will be to oversee worldwide sales and marketing. Job 1 at Chrysler is boosting sales of existing vehicles and getting the money-losing company back in the black.

The Dodge Ram pickup, for instance, needs to regain ground against competitors from Ford and Chevy, as well as the new Tundra that Press just helped launch at Toyota. Chrysler's Jeep and Dodge SUVs are lagging, while Toyota's Highlander and RAV4 have hit a sweet spot with buyers. Although Press is known as a quiet, even Zenlike visionary, he's an inveterate car salesman, which Chrysler desperately needs.

Press will also oversee product strategy, which means hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles might become more prominent in Chrysler's portfolio. But for now, what's most interesting is the way the new Chrysler is breaking established boundaries in the most hidebound corner of the industry. The Detroit 3 are notorious for competing against one another, while aggressive importers gnaw away at their market share.

Executives routinely move from one domestic automaker to another, which calcifies a Detroit-centric culture, but migration between Detroit and the Japanese automakers has been rare. Now that Chrysler has breached that wall, a restive industry awaits the next surprise.