By Alex Taylor III
January 30, 2013

From the driver's seat to the hot seat

There are no sinecures in the auto business. Executives are subject to the whims of customer preference, the uncertainty of the marketplace, and vagaries of macroeconomic forces. In 2012, recession in Europe, a cooling in China, and the rejection of electric vehicles changed the course of careers and companies. Here’s a look at some of the likely hot spots in 2013 — and the executives who will feel the heat.


1. Steve Girsky: General Motors

Got enough on your plate, Steve? As vice chairman, Girsky oversees corporate strategy, new business development, purchasing and supply chain, product planning, OnStar, and business alliances. But he’s spending most of his time across the Atlantic where he also heads GM Europe and is chairman of Opel. Girsky has to persuade Europe’s powerful trade unions to allow Opel to close plants and deliver quick results from his high-risk alliance with PSA Peugeot Citroen.


2. Mark Reuss: General Motors

As the son of a former GM (GM) president, Reuss has always had an outsize profile at the company. Now he becomes a marked man for the second time, having been anointed by former chairman CEO Ed Whitacre as his favorite candidate to lead GM in the future. Reuss won’t be resting on his laurels. This spring, he has to launch GM’s big moneymakers — its pickup trucks — and make good on his pledge to shore up the automaker’s incredibly shrinking market share.


3. Joe Hinrichs: Ford

After spending two years crisscrossing Asia to jumpstart Ford’s manufacturing operations, Hinrichs will be restricting his future travel to this side of the globe as president of the Americas. Expect him to put his factory experience to use ironing out Ford’s nagging quality problems and getting ready for the rollout of the F-series pickup trucks in 2014. And look for executive recruiters to come after him if he succeeds.


4. Steve Odell: Ford

Odell added responsibility for the Middle East and Africa to his duties as chairman and chief executive of European operations, but he hasn’t had time for much sightseeing. After Ford (F) announced plans in October to close its big plant in Genk, Belgium, unions put up a blockade and wouldn’t allow the shipment of finished cars for three months. If Ford is to maintain its aggressive schedule of capacity reduction, Odell can expect to spend the year putting out similar brushfires.


5. Elon Musk: Tesla Motors

This will be the year that determines whether Tesla (TSLA) remains a cash-burning rich man’s hobby or grows up to become a self-sustaining business. Chairman and CEO Musk has promised to build 20,000 cars this year, and he got a good start in January. Still to be settled is whether his factory-owned showroom and service centers provide adequate distribution — and if they violate dealer franchise laws.


6. Sergio Marchionne: Fiat-Chrysler

Marchionne created two small sensations in January by 1.) shaving off his beard and 2.) referring to the motors in Alfa Romeos as “wop engines.” Small matters in the bigger picture. Tougher comparisons will make it harder for Chrysler to keep posting big year-over-year sales gains, while Marchionne is likely to be distracted by the leisurely restructuring of the auto industry in Europe. And then there’s his on-again, off-again verbal jousting with Volkswagen.


7. Jonathan Browning: Volkswagen

With the tailwinds from a new Passat and Beetle at his back, Browning, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, saw sales shoot up 35% last year to 438,133 in an overall industry that rose only 13%. VW is now more than halfway towards its goal of selling 800,000 vehicles by 2018. Browning says VW will beat the industry again in 2013, but he will have to do it without the benefit of any new high-volume products.


8. John Krafcik: Hyundai

Krafcik’s golden career cruise — from MIT researcher to Hyundai Motor America CEO and president — hit a rock in 2012 when the Korean automaker was found to be overstating mileage claims on 11 of its models. It didn’t help that Krafcik had been heard in the past to disparage the mileage claims of other manufacturers. The brouhaha didn’t noticeably slow Hyundai’s ascent — sales up 17% in December — but you can bet Krafcik will be watching the mileage numbers — and everything else — more closely in 2013.


9. Dieter Zetsche: Mercedes-Benz

German sources are saying that Zetsche will have his chairman’s contract extended until the end of 2016. That’s more of a bet on the future than reward for the past. Falling sales in Europe and stiffer competition in China have dented Mercedes results, and Zetsche will have to up his game to position the three-pointed star for luxury leadership that he has promised for 2020.


10. Martin Winterkorn: Volkswagen

What, me worry? VW AG chairman Winterkorn has a brand-new Golf to sell while he waits out the restructuring of Europe’s less fortunate automakers that he believes is just around the corner: “We can see some light at the end of the tunnel” in 2014 and 2015. Meanwhile, VW can make hay in other markets where it is either on the rise or on top: China, the U.S., and Brazil.


11. Johan de Nysschen: Infiniti

After 20 years at Audi, de Nysschen jumped to Infiniti in 2012 and moved to Hong Kong as CEO to relaunch the luxury brand. As a first step, he has devised a new naming convention for Infiniti models using the letter “Q.” “Our vision is simple,” de Nysschen says, “to secure permanent membership in the exclusive premium automobile club, a club that is today dominated by German brands.” Expect that permanent membership to take a lot longer than renaming the cars.


12. Takanobu Ito: Honda

After the stripped-down 2012 Honda Civic launched with a thud, president Ito accepted responsibility and ordered an 18-month makeover. That either demonstrates faulty product planning or superb customer responsiveness, but it is no way to run a car company. Ito will have to demonstrate a firmer hand in 2013.


13. Akio Toyoda: Toyota Motor

The energetic president may want to hang up his Nomex racing suit for a while and find out how his family’s company can kick the recall habit. In addition to agreeing to a $1.1 billion settlement for acceleration problems, Toyota (TM) recalled more than 10 million cars in the last three months of 2012. Even for a company with a bulletproof quality reputation, that’s more than a flesh wound.

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