The Auto Industry's Jinx

You’ve heard of the Sports Illustrated Cover jinx, right? It’s an old fable that says that any athlete or team featured on the venerable sports mag’s cover will soon be broadsided by some nasty injury, humiliating defeat or other catastrophe. Anna Kournikova batted her eye lashes on the June 5, 2000 cover before bowing out early (even for her) from the French Open a day later. The New York Giants were featured the same year just before the Baltimore Ravens hammered them in the Super Bowl. Michael Jordan graced the cover just before his wife filed divorce papers. You get the idea. Well, I think I have found the auto industry’s equivalent.

It’s the Automotive Executive of the Year Award, an industry glad-handing event sponsored by the Automotive Industry Action group and DNV Certification. The winner is picked by a group of journalists and analysts. That panel has picked some dubious recipients, many of whom ended up in some form of drama not long after.

This year, Carroll Shelby gets it for a distinguished career in racing and selling performance cars. His name is woven into American car culture. But if past winners are any indicator, Shelby might want to safeguard his storied name in performance cars from a trip to the pits. Take a look at a few past winners.

1997: Former Chrysler CEO Robert Eaton won the award. The next year he cut the deal to sell Chrysler to Daimler and form the “merger of equals” that would cause both companies many headaches. To be fair, many Chrysler executives say the company might have gone under if Daimler didn’t buy it. But the merger failed, has been unwound, and Eaton is mighty unpopular in Detroit these days.

1999: Jac Nasser. The former Ford CEO did turn out some big profits in the late 1990s. But two years after getting the award, Nasser was fired.

2003: Dieter Zetsche got plaudits when he won the award in 2003 for leading Chrysler’s turnaround. But it would later be revealed that Dr. Z’s magic was just hocus pocus. Chrysler propped up profits by building up inventory and discounting cars. Eventually, Chrysler’s profligate rebate spending, sales to rental fleets and building cars that had no customers ran out of steam and the company was bleeding red ink. Daimler just about gave the company to Cerberus Capital Management last year.

2004: GM factory guru Gary Cowger got the award in 2004 when he was head of GM’s all-important North American business. The next year the business went into a deep tailspin and he was demoted. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner took the reigns of GM’s home business as sales dropped and massive losses mounted.

2005: Trevor Creed won the award. At the time, Chrysler was cutting edge in design. But it didn’t last. The 300 was a winner. Now cars like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander are seen as bland, the Chrysler Sebring family sedan is unloved and the Jeep Compass is just garish.

2006: William C. Ford Jr. got the trophy. At the time, my colleague David Kiley surmised that it was just Bill’s turn to get a nice award. The company was en route to losing $12.7 billion. Five months later Chairman Ford decided his family’s faltering company was better off in the hands of someone else. He hired former Boeing Co. executive Alan Mulally to take the reigns.

2007: Last year, Jim Press won the award while he was still a top executive at Toyota's North American sales business. He later left for Chrysler. The jury is out on this one. Can Press get consumers to love Sebrings and Calibers the way they love Camrys and Corollas? That's a tough leap to make. If this award is any indicator, luck won't be on his side. Maybe Jim should have passed on the honor.

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