Chrysler Group LLC Deputy Chief Executive Jim Press said he plans to leave by November, ending a two-year stint at the automaker that included its slide into bankruptcy, according to two people briefed on the still-confidential discussions.
Press, 62, was the only member of Chrysler's senior leadership team to remain with the company after a fast-track bankruptcy under the supervision of the U.S. Treasury.
His departure now would leave the No. 3 U.S. automaker without a sales chief or a visible top executive at a time when it is struggling to execute a turnaround and repay about $15 billion in emergency funding from the U.S. government.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Press's decision.
A former senior executive at Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, Press joined Chrysler in 2007 shortly after it was acquired by its former owner Cerberus Capital Management LP.
Chrysler declined to comment. We do not comment on rumor and speculation, spokeswoman Shawn Morgan said.
Press was not immediately available for comment.
Such a move to leave would mark the end of a rough ride for Press who built a reputation at Toyota as a strong advocate for dealers.
Press said he wanted to restore an American icon when he joined Chrysler, but his term at the No. 3 U.S. automaker corresponded with a slide into bankruptcy and a controversial decision to slash Chrysler dealerships.
During a 37-year career at Toyota, Press became the first non-Japanese person elected to Toyota's board of directors. The Kansas native was known for a soft-spoken manner that seemed a perfect match for the outward humility of corporate Japan.
Even after arriving in Detroit, Press was given to speaking with admiration about Asian culture and what he called its emphasis on teamwork and group harmony.
But as Chrysler slid toward Chapter 11, Press alienated dealers with hardball sales tactics that forced them to take on costly levels of inventory, critics said.
When Chrysler decided to cut 789 dealerships in its bankruptcy, some said they felt betrayed by the automaker's sales push led by Press.
Press had told dealers on a conference call that Chrysler would have a long memory for those who refused new inventory, a statement many saw as an implicit threat.
In June testimony before U.S. lawmakers, Press said the cuts had been the hardest decision of his career and he had been misunderstood.
I would never threaten a dealer, he said then.
The new Chrysler could be better served now by bringing in a new executive to mend fences with its remaining retailers, said one consultant.
Jim Press was such a hero at Toyota and such a villain at Chrysler, said Jim Ziegler, a Georgia-based retail consultant. He was exalted at Toyota; but it's easy to be exalted when the cars are flying off the lot. At Chrysler, he lost the respect of a lot of dealers.
Italy's Fiat SpA
Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne has shaken up the company's ranks of operational executives, but has kept a low profile during his more frequent visits to the automaker's headquarters outside Detroit.
Press's hire had been seen as a coup for Chrysler's then-chief executive Bob Nardelli. But by late 2008, as Chrysler's problems mounted and it failed to find a new buyer, people working with him said Press had expressed increasing frustration with his role.
Erich Merkle, an auto industry consultant at Autoconomy.com, said a departure by Press would focus attention on what he called the revolving door of management at Chrysler up through the most recent chapter under Fiat.
Fiat has 20 percent with an option to acquire majority control over time.
I remain very skeptical. They might not understand the American market as well as they think, said Merkle.
Jim Press was one of the people who understands the American market but I don't think he had the authority to make any kind of significant changes while Cerberus was in power, he said.
(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)