The Drag Racing Bookkeeper

He isn't your average bean-counter. Chrysler Corp.'s Jerome B. York is a chief financial officer who loves big pickup trucks--especially drag-racing them. He gleefully recalls the time he pulled up at a stoplight in a prototype of the brawny new Dodge Ram pickup with a V10 engine next to the unsuspecting driver of a Z28 Camaro. The light turned green. "I buried him," York chortles. "He had no idea there was 450 foot-pounds of torque under the hood."

York, 54, thrives on revving up the engines at work, too. During 14 years at Chrysler, he says, just four were calm--and none recently. But with Chrysler's turnaround now seemingly assured, He was itching for a new challenge--and he just found a big one. On May 3, troubled IBM announced that it has hired York as its new CFO. He joins IBM's new Chief Executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr., another computer-industry neophyte. Their daunting task: to remake Big Blue.

BONING UP. IBM sorely needs the experience of someone who can cut costs, dump surplus assets, and trim the work force. York has experience at those tasks. In other areas, he's got a lot of boning up to do. York's only real experience with computers was running Chrysler's management information systems department. That's why, he says, he'll mix the obvious jobs of meeting IBMers and going over the company's books with a crash course in hardware and software. Even so, it's far from sure that he--or Gerstner--can learn fast enough to avoid making big mistakes.

In many ways, York will fit right in at buttoned-down IBM. His uniform at Chrysler was a conservative navy suit and a rep tie. And the wiry executive still retains the military bearing of his West Point education. It's only after work that he seems to relax. At Chrysler, he typically unwound on his farm north of Detroit where he raises sheep and chickens. "His idea of fun on a weekend is digging postholes," scoffs his friend Robert S. Miller Jr., Chrysler's former vice-chairman. York and his wife Eilene are looking for a rural spread in Connecticut.

At Big Blue, he may adapt faster than most people expect. One of Chrysler's most versatile executives, he has a pair of engineering degrees and began his career in that field at General Motors Corp. At one time or another, he has run its advanced manufacturing operations, headed its Dodge car and truck division, and served as controller, as well as CFO. He even ran Chrysler's Mexican unit in the early 1980s. "There's almost no constituency at IBM that Jerry cannot address," says Frederick W. Zuckerman, a former Chrysler treasurer who is now at RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.

Perhaps best of all from IBM's standpoint, York has proved himself an epic penny-pincher. He helped Chrysler cut more than $4.2 billion from costs since 1989. It wasn't all slash and burn, either. His team shaved 10 days off the 25-day process of closing the company's books at the end of each quarter by emulating more efficient corporations. He also has sold $3.8 billion worth of assets for the cash-strapped carmaker since late 1991, while wooing Wall Street into snapping up $3.2 billion worth of its securities.

WIDE EYED. What will his strategy be at IBM? York isn't revealing much. About all he'll say is that some additional cost restructuring may be necessary.

For now, he and colleagues are still marveling at how fast fortunes change. "Who would have thought five years ago that IBM would be recruiting financial talent from Chrysler?" says Chrysler Chairman Robert J. Eaton. Who knows? Maybe in five years, another troubled company will be looking for a rescuer. If York does as well at IBM as he did at Chrysler, he'll be one hotcandidate.

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