The past few years have been difficult for the auto industry. The financial crisis, bailouts, and economic weakness have made those executives who have survived look all the more impressive.A few stand out in particular: GM CEO Dan Akerson, for taking an industry laggard and bailout recipient and once again making it the world’s largest automaker; Nissan Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn for successfully running two giant car companies on different continents at the same time; and Ford CEO Alan Mulally for making it through the crisis without taking a bailout.
Over the past few months, whether by promotion or publicity, all three have given hints about their likely successors. These three people will have a tough act to follow if and when they finally take the reins of these companies.
Carlos Tavares, Chief Operating Officer at Renault
Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Tavares has a resume and skill set few in the world could ever hope to match. According to the piece, he’s a race car driver, speaks four languages, and has run auto operations on four continents.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s learned at the feet of Carlos Ghosn, an executive so legendary that there’s a Japanese graphic novel devoted to his management exploits.
Tavares played a key role building Nissan in the United States and South America in the height of the recession, and launching the Leaf electric car. He’s currently spearheading the effort to make Renault a more global company.
In person, Tavares apparently tends to be a bit taciturn and succinct, but is particularly passionate about racing.
He’s the favourite to succeed Mr. Ghosn when he moves on, which will likely be within the next four or five years, but he’s also one of the premier outside candidates for any automaker with an opening.
Mark Fields, Chief Operating Officer at Ford
See a pattern here? Chief Operating Officers are often the next in line at auto companies, and Fields was elevated to the position in September and is widely expected to replace 67-year-old CEO Alan Mulally.
Fields has an excellent pedigree, and is best known for helping lead the firm’s North American operations from record losses just four years ago, to record profits this year. Now, the firm’s North American division is its most profitable, and is keeping the whole company in the green even as it loses money abroad.
He does have something of a hot temper, as he allegedly nearly came to blows with the firm’s CFO over an ad campaign. According to Bloomberg, when asked about the incident, Fields did not deny it, and said that he’s always been “passionate” about the business.
Mary Barra, Senior Vice President for Global Product Development at General Motors
This particular succession is a little less clear cut. The Wall Street Journal cites North American Head Mark Reuss and Vice Chairman Stephen Girsky as possible internal candidates; however, Barra, recently the subject of an extensive and complementary profile in Fortune, may be the most likely options.
Current CEO Dan Akerson showed faith in Barra when he elevated her from running human resources to the highly prestigious top job at product development, where the company actually creates, tests, and engineers new product models.
She’s the highest ranking woman in the global auto industry. Dan Akerson told Fortune that Barra is “a strong leader and change agent who knows the business inside and out — from the plant floor and the design studio to the boardroom.”
Barra is a GM lifer in every way. Her father was a die maker at a Pontiac plant for 39 years. Her first car was a Chevy, and she went to college as a co-op student who worked half of each year at the company.
She started out as an engineer in a Pontiac plant but was quickly recognised as management material, and was then sent to Stanford Business School on the company’s dime. She’s one of Akerson’s closest allies in remaking what had been a rather dysfunctional organisation.
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