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Auto executives jostle to lead CEO succession races at General Motors, Ford

By David Welch
and Jeff Green
Bloomberg News

As the top lieutenant to Renault SA Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn, Carlos Tavares admits he’s unlikely to succeed his boss, who’s just 59. So he wants to run General Motors Co. or Ford Motor Co. instead.

“We have a big leader and he is here to stay,” said Tavares, who just turned 55. “Anyone who is passionate about the auto industry comes to a conclusion that there is a point where you have the energy and appetite for a No. 1 position.”

Renault’s chief operating officer is hardly alone in his maneuvering for the top job at an American carmaker as GM boss Dan Akerson, 64, and Ford CEO Alan Mulally, 68, may retire soon. The U.S. auto industry is roaring back, fueling the careers of executives who engineered Ford’s restructuring or helped GM and Chrysler Group LLC shake off going through a government-backed bankruptcy.

The top of the industry is filled with “extremely bright, extremely ambitious people,” said Richard Kolpasky, a managing director at recruiter Boyden Global Executive Search. “There’s only one CEO chair when the music stops. The majority of people at that level have the desire to be No. 1.”

Ford in October promoted Mark Fields, 52, to chief operating officer, making him a leading candidate to succeed Mulally. At the same time, the company said Mulally will stay at least through 2014.

“Ford Motor Co. takes succession planning very seriously, and we have succession plans in place for each of our key leadership positions,” said Ray Day, a spokesman. “Our preference always is to develop talent internally, and we are fortunate to have a strong list of internal candidates for each of our senior leadership positions. We also, of course, survey the external environment for potential candidates as a regular course of action. For obvious competitive reasons, we do not discuss our succession plans externally.”

At GM, at least four executives, including North America President Mark Reuss, 49, and Mary Barra, 51, head of global product development, have been mentioned as CEO contenders. GM in April said it had restructured Akerson’s pay to reflect the possibility he’ll retire within three years.

GM had no comment about executive succession, said Greg Martin, a spokesman.

Tavares hasn’t talked to Ford or GM about future CEO openings, he said in an interview. But he said his best chance to run an automaker is in the United States.

“With over 14 years of stable and consistent leadership, the Renault-Nissan alliance is well-positioned for the future,” said Simon Sproule, head of communications for Renault-Nissan. “Any remarks by individuals on executive management strategy are their own personal opinions and not for any further comment.”

Under Tavares, Renault reported unexpected growth in first-half profit as labor cost reductions and higher vehicle prices more than offset an industry-wide slump in European deliveries.

When Tavares oversaw North America for Nissan Motor Co., 43 percent owned by Renault, he helped the company earn 209 billion yen ($2.2 billion) in the region in the year ended March 2010, versus a 46.7 billion yen loss in 2009. During the downturn, he retained experienced factory hands by persuading them to work four days a week instead of five, with a 20 percent pay cut.

“My experience would be good for any car company,” Tavares said. “Why not GM? I would be honored to lead a company like GM.”

Job-hopping “is a big part of the industry,” automotive historian John Wolkonowicz said. “People are trying to move up in the world.”

Tavares says looking for a shot at a top spot elsewhere isn’t disloyal. Instead, he said, it’s a reflection of ambition and concern that if Ghosn retires when Tavares is 60, it will be too late for him. The Portuguese executive, who joined Renault 31 years ago as a test-driving engineer, has a background in product development.


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