"What other photos do you need?" Jim Press asked us congenially as our photographer finished his work in the hallway by the Chrysler cafeteria. "Do you want a picture of me in my Speedo, doing something else?" It was a great, sly joke, referring to A USA Today photo of press taken underwater as he swam laps, which he does almost every day. sometimes twice a day.
"That was the story of the year," I suggested, remembering the rather shocking picture of the nearly naked chief U.S. executive of Toyota swimming toward the camera in goggles with big air bubbles coming out of his nose.
"That was a sad story," he shot back.
"Rule number one: the head of a car company should never appear in a national newspaper in a Speedo," I joked, but upon reflection, maybe not joking.
"I happen to agree with that," he deadpanned. "I've been doing everything I can to destroy every piece of evidence that it exists."
This picture you see of him laughing? This isn't typical. Press has more of a dry, Steven Wright sort of humor ("I got a garage door opener. It can't close. Just open.") that tends to be self-deprecating, can poke a little, and throws you off-guard, delivered with a sad-eyed, Huckleberry Hound demeanor. His shoulders hunch a bit, his hands are quiet, his voice is soft, always polite. People around him are forced to settle down to listen to him. And when he talks, it's never about himself.
Back in 2005, we traveled to California to give Press an All-Star award for building Toyota, over his four decades there, into the third-largest car company in the United States, accounting for half of Toyota's global profits. He accepted his award in a roomful of top executives, all of us standing, coffees in hand. There was no microphone. He acknowledged the team effort, told them to look at the bull's-eyes on each other's backs, and sent everyone back to work. Then he gave us a tour of the Toyota "campus" in his Tacoma pickup, after relocating his dirty gym clothes to the back seat.
In 2006, Press became the first American president of Toyota Motor North America, and he topped that honor last April when he became the first non-Japanese person to be appointed to the Toyota board. He may also be its last - five months later, Chrysler's new vice chairman and co-president was house-hunting in Michigan.
We roll the tape.
"Many things we need to ask you, Jim."
"There's so much I don't know," he responds, mournfully. "In fact, I don't know anything! I've only been here a week."
This is how you thank Toyota for putting you on the board?
Wow. Uh. I was there for a long time. I owe everything I am to Toyota. I was very happy. I left because I'd arrived at a point many people might envy, being able to manage the overall process instead of the operations. It's not my cup of tea. I like to be on the showroom floor, see the people and the candy. I like to go out into the real world. That's just who I am. People who get in higher positions have about ten percent of the information and make about ninety percent of the decisions. I like to be on the ninety-percent-information side.
No, the timing wasn't perfect. At Toyota, I was in the sunset of my career. There's no strict mandatory retirement age at Toyota, but I wasn't going to be there ten or fifteen more years. This is the sunrise.
How Japanese are you now?
It isn't even Japanese. One of the strengths of Toyota is that it's not a culture dictated by any country of origin; it's more a culture of the company. The strengths of those cultural issues may be stronger in America than they are in Japan, so you're sort of this hybrid.
How did the call come?
A mutual acquaintance asked if I had some interest in getting to know the folks at Cerberus. I had intended to introduce myself. We were both in New York, so I thought if we needed to do things in the future in the community or in terms of lobbying and so on, then we could do it together. I had no real interest in leaving Toyota at that time.
I was intrigued by the long-term perspective that they were taking. Steve Feinberg made the point about creating an opportunity for a great American icon, for a United States-based auto company to take on the world and show that we can do it. That really is a big part of his motivation. As I learned more over time, my interest changed to being part of the company.
Isn't private equity a beautiful thing?
The advantages solve so many problems. There are always trade-offs in considering long- versus short-term results. A company's operations - the quality, depth, and ramifications of a company's decisions - can be really difficult for stockholders to understand. Then there's the influence of trying to do things that will be well-received on the Street. You can make decisions that are not good for the ongoing strength and growth of the company.
Cerberus has backed up Chrysler in supporting a $3-billion-a-year investment in capital expenditures, and there are an awful lot of funds earmarked for development of technology, vehicles, plant equipment that will improve quality, and more efficient production.
Could you explain the relationship of the triumvirate - you, co-president Tom LaSorda, and CEO Bob Nardelli?
The proposed organization chart reminded me a little of when Toyota started up in the early days. We brought together disparate individuals that created an interesting synergy that no one could match. So here you've got Bob Nardelli, who is a world-class executive [from GE and The Home Depot] with an understanding of business principles that apply to any business. He brings to us a sort of top of the umbrella that connects demand and supply. Tom is supply, and I'm demand. It makes a lot of sense.
Tom is also the keeper of the flame. He's fourth-generation Chrysler. He has the tribal knowledge, he understands the heritage, and he has the passion. You put the three of us together, and we can make good, quality decisions; we can have good vision; and we can focus the organization.
You built Toyota from a limited number of models to a full-line car company. Here, you have to filter it back down . . .
First, I didn't build Toyota up; I had the honor of working with people who contributed an awful lot. So I have some knowledge of what is needed for success. It was a long, arduous process. Here, you've got the framework. The bones are good. You have to make some adjustments, refocus some priorities, instead of starting with a clean sheet of paper. We can build on that much faster than at Toyota, where we started with nothing. We had to wait for the trees to grow. There ar6e engineers here with twenty, thirty years of experience. The products have a really solid base. But I think we can do a lot better job of getting them in tune with what the customer wants.
We think the lineup is pretty fractured . . .
In some ways, the K-car hatched the egg of the segment where the Camry is. The K-car was the first one; it was the right size and a front-drive sedan. The poor company has now gone through all these iterations, but the core of that K-car is still here. How much easier will it be to create an effective Camry competitor building on that foundation? People here know how to do it because they've done it. Focused on the right priorities, we can build world-class products faster than people think.
Any Chrysler dealers left have been through the fire. What are they telling you?
Isn't it true that the hottest fire makes the strongest steel? They are giving me good feedback. There's complexity we don't need and features we do need. We need visual appeal.
Any cars you're going to push off the cliff?
We have models that overlap - two or three vehicles that serve the same customer - and that's not efficient. We also have markets where we have insufficient coverage. We're developing a long-term strategic vision, not just a quick answer, of what the product portfolio should look like five to twelve years from now. And then where the current product fits in. We need to make sure we're executing product direction from the customer. [Chrysler announced on November 1 that it will discontinue production of the Dodge Magnum, the Chrysler Pacifica, the Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, and the Chrysler Crossfire - Ed.]
Will you make a Demon for us?
OK. I don't know what it is, but . . .
Give it another week and you'll know everything.