Bob Nardelli. A good leader for Chrysler in its present plight?

November 4, 2007

bob-nardelli.jpgIf you believe in situational leadership you may feel that Bob Nardelli’s style is an appropriate one for Chrysler, following the Cerberus takeover

The bloodletting at Chrysler is not going to be pleasant. It calls for a special kind of leadership to avoid worse outcomes than might have been possible. There have been business leaders in the past who relished the prospects of being in charge in such a crisis. They had earned their reputations as uncompromising men willing to made the big decisions in a slash-and-burn situation.

Uncompromising men? It’s just that there are fewer stories about equally ruthless business women, because they haven’t had as many opportunities. A few years ago there was Linda Wachner, America’s first Fortune 500 female boss, whose high-handed management style was blamed for the bankruptcy of clothing company Warnaco. And I have little doubt that if Margaret Thatcher had found herself in change at Chrysler at the moment, she would have entered into the spirit of things with her legendary energy and decisiveness.

Heroes and villains

In times of crisis, it is tempting to portray events as dominated by the actions of great villains or heroes depending on your view of capital market mechanisms. The leader as hero rescues what can be saved, and in the process accepts that casualties as a vital part of winning the battle. That might be called the unconditional free-market view. Opposed to that, is notion of the leader brought in to a company in trouble is a villain, a mercenary, a ruthless bounty-hunter contracted to deliver what is required, ‘dead or alive’ in order to earn his own booty on behalf of a powerful rapacious corporate raider. That’s the unconditional anti-capitalist view.

Young people around the world learn of their national heroes and traitors in terms rather like these. Cultural forces sustain the views, as part of each culture’s ‘national heritage’, regardless of efforts at history teachers to offer a more nuanced explanation of events and of the impact of individuals.

Many years ago, Thomas Carlisle took the view that great leaders could be excused human flaws. Assuming they have something special which achieves great results, we must beware of belittling them for being all too human. That’s one argument. Carlisle warned against what he called valetism. (‘No man is a hero to his own valet’).

One of various objections to Carlisle’s idea is the way in which heroes suddenly become villains (the hero to zero effect), but in either case are granted exceptional abilities. It anticipated the more technical studies of leadership in search of the right stuff, the essence of leadership.

It took us a hundred years of work to suspect that the impact of great leaders was to a considerable degree based on the perceptions of followers. That’s why I am rather keen to promote the suggestion that we get the leaders we deserve, and that they are to some degree the creation of our collective imaginations.

Remember Chain-Saw Al?

Before returning to Chrysler, it may be worth recalling the rise and fall of other leaders once hailed great, and then trashed. ‘Chain saw’ Al Dunlap comes to mind. Older subscribers will remember Al as hero of Wall Street, the wizard of down-sizing. Al was in demand for a company in need of the slash and burn treatment. Al kept producing the goods, metaphorically. He eventually was found not to be producing the goods literally, and had been engaging in all sorts of creative accounting.

Morer recently, we witnessed had the rise and fall of Sam O’ Neal at Merrill Lynch. Sam had been lauded as Sam the Man who had shaken Merrill Lunch out of its strategic slumbers. He had also presided over the company at the time when it hit the buffers as one of the biggest losers in the sub-prime markets this year. Exit Sam with some $16 million compensation for his efforts during the good years.

Once the performance of Merrill Lynch fell, Mr O’Neal’s contribution, and his leadership style were called into attention. He was autocratic. He would not listen to advice. He could be very difficult to work with. And so on.

Which brings us back to Bob Nardelli

When Nardelli left Home Depot, earlier this year, the consensus was that

Home Depot faces a well-known dilemma. It has long passed a growth phase when its stock was rising in sensational fashion. Efforts to maintain the growth led to a decision to bring in new and dynamic management. When the desired growth was not achieved, the leader was deposed. Nardelli’s demise was made easier by his management style and a skill at extracting extremely favourable personal rewards. It should be noted that this might suggest he was a difficult boss, but not a stupid one

When Cerberus acquired Chrysler, they turned to Nardelli.

Why? Private Equity business deals require leaders to be able to follow a plan, stick to the numbers. They may or may not be ‘good with people’. If they are, it’s a bonus.

Matching the situation and the leader

Situational leadership suggests that different situations call for different leadership skills. In one well-known leadership formulation, leaders are invited to assess situations and seek an appropriate style. In Chrysler’s situation, the temptation for the new owners is to regard a directive style as appropriate. That’s how it’s worked in the past. Hello, Bob, I think we’ve got just the job for you …Yes, a bit like Al., but we don’t want any financial tricks. Remember what happened to Al.

So is Nardelli likely to be a good leader for Chrysler?

There are no easy answers in a case study like this one. Conclusions have to be supported by argument and indications of the assumptions being made. So far, I’ve been putting forward a qualification that it is not possible to put leaders into one of two boxes ‘good or bad’. This is based on the evidence that leaders may have a style that suits them to some circumstances better than others.

The next point to consider is good for what and for whom. In evaluating Nardelli’s impact at Chrysler we may wish to take the broad view that Chrysler appears to be in need of drastic and painful change, and that Nardelli was attracted with a deal in which he is generously rewarded for carrying out the painful operation of change.

I suspect he has some of the characteristics of the tough-minded leader required to meet the short-term financial objectives of Cerberus. I don’t know if he will succeed in the wider challenge of creating something permanent that will be recognised as the New Chrysler. Sadly, among the biggest losers at Chrysler will be tens of thousands of workers who will be without jobs over the coming months. The unconditional free-marketeers will Maybe argue that the alternatives would likely have led to even more job losses at Chrysler further down the line. Maybe a tough approach now will create more jobs elsewhere, than a more ‘humane’ and collaborative approach which fails to bring about changes in market prospects of the ailing corporation.


Cerberus bags Nardelli for Chrysler

August 6, 2007

nardelli.jpgA name leaks out as new CEO for Chrysler. It is Robert Nardelli, recently deposed head of Home Depot. Why Nardelli? Why an anonymous leak? What are the implications for Chrysler’s future?

The fate of Chrysler is now in the hands of Private Equity organization Cerberus. If step one is win the take-over battle, step two is installing the top management team to execute the transformation plan.

It is difficult to conceive of step one being completed without parallel efforts occuring to secure the person or persons believed capable of getting the job done. Sometimes the leader has been in place before the venture capital is sorted out.

The leak

It was Associated Press that broke the news.

Chrysler’s new private owners have picked former Home Depot boss Bob Nardelli to head the No. 3 U.S. automaker in its effort to return to financial health, a person close to the process said Sunday

The leak was rapidly followed by official confirmation. Bob Nardelli has been appointed. The complex twists and turns in Chrysler’s fortunes continue.

Recent events

German auto magnate Dieter Zetsche had headed the Merger between Chrysler and Daimler. But the move failed to deliver its promise of a transition to a globally competetive firm. The escalating debts at Chrysler led Zetsche first to indicate that all options had to be sonsidered. Eventually, the ultimate option was exercized, and Chrysler put up for sale. In May 2007, Cerberus Capital Management won over other bids.

There were further twists to the tale. The planned finance packages could not be sold to the finance houses. With a jittery financial context, it seemed that the deal would fall through. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Daimler even played a part in financing its own sale. The deal squeeked through.

Why Nardelli?
Private Equity deals rely on having a clear plan for recovery of investments. The financials often indicate assets that can be sold off to that effect. Sometimes the deal implies replacement of lethargic leadership with others more willing to ‘do what it takes’ to ‘liberate’ those under-utilized assets. Detractors point to the excessive zeal from such slash and burn leaders, and lack of concern for the historical purpose and values of the target organization.

Nardelli is a controversial figure. But the pattern of his leadership behavior may fit rather well for asset liberation. He is reputed to be high-handed and authoritarian. These may not be
particularly desirable characteristics, particularly for colleagues, including former Chrysler head Tom La Sorda, They may, however, appropriate for circumstances where speed outweighs consensus in decision-making.

Nardelli’s removal from Home Depot was attributed partly to a high-handed style particularly over his remuneration demands. It seems likely that such behaviors would have been overlooked, if the company had been able to achive its aspirations of growth under his leadership (which were probably unrealistic, but that’s another issue).

The new job offers a fascinating case study. (Not so fascinating as tough for employees, almost certainly). Will such a style fulfill the requirements of Cerberus and its future plans for the company? The conventional wisdom is that this sort of deal will provide generous financial rewards for the key players. In which case Nardelli’s leadership abilities will outweigh the bevaors that contributed to his problems at Home Depot. In either event, Cerberus will have obtained the leader they believed they needed and deserved.

Magna under the microscope over Daimler Chrysler

May 14, 2007


Canadian firm Magna comes under renewed scrutiny as a potential bidder for Chrysler through its recent backing from Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. As the complex leadership story unfolds, a new suitor, Cerberus appears centre-stage.

Stop Press

The following addressed the Chrysler deal as most commentators saw it in early May. I added the last paragraph as Autoworld blogs began touting a new suitor for Chrysler. By the end of the day (Monday 14th May) the whole post appears to have been overtaken, as I cautioned:

How to make sense of it? It’s worth bearing in mind there may still be other players waiting to enter the drama. There may still be a few more twists and turns before we find out Chrysler’s fate.

The twist came sooner than I expected, with the dramatic news that US private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management is to buy a majority stake in Chrysler

The Original posting follows ..

The future of Chrysler has been the subject of increasing speculation since Dieter Zetsche, Chief executive of parent Daimler Chrysler, admitted recently that the group has started negotiations with a number of parties about its sale.

A firm mentioned as interested in acquiring Daimler is Magna. The firm is a relative newcomer, founded by an Austrian entrepreneur Frank Stronach. Mr Stronach emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, and built up a successful auto-business. One of its interesting features is its Governance structure. According to the company web-site,

In 1971 Mr. Stronach introduced his management philosophy, known as Fair Enterprise, to Magna. Fair Enterprise is based on a business Charter of Rights that predetermines the annual percentage of profits shared between employees, management, investors and society, and makes every employee a shareholder in Magna. These rights are enshrined in a governing Corporate Constitution.

Enter Oleg

There has been substantial investment by a Russian organization Basic Element, headed by Oleg Deripaska. [Photo above by A. Sazonov, from MosNews Archive]. Rated up there with Ambramovitch as one of the world’s richest individuals, Oleg dominates the Russian metals industry through his RUSAL organization.

The story was picked up by Forbes:

A Russian industrial conglomerate will sink $1.54 billion into auto parts supplier Magna International Inc., raising speculation that the Canadian company is generating cash for a bid to buy Chrysler …After the annual meeting, Magna founder and Chairman Frank Stronach said he did not think the investment would have any bearing on the company’s efforts to buy Chrysler, although he thought the Russian partner would make Magna more attractive to Chrysler’s German parent, DaimlerChrysler AG.

While Magna continues to receive attention, the Russian connection, and alleged side-deals leave some doubt that the move will be straightforward.

Leadership issues

The story is replete with leadership issues. This is partly because of the different levels at which it is playing out. Considering the parent company Daimler Chrysler with its celebrated and wealthy leader, Dieter Zetsche broadens it to a global scale. Enter a Russian entrepreneur in cahoots with a Canadian business leader. Then there is Chrysler, still a large outfit, and one of the gang of three ailing American auto-giants, with its increasingly beleaguered leader, Tom LaSorda, a former GM executive.

How to make sense of it? It’s worth bearing in mind there may still be other players waiting to enter the drama. There may still be a few more twists and turns before we find out Chrysler’s fate.