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Chrysler snags key Toyota executive

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During his years at Toyota, Jim Press was known for his swimming prowess -- a skill that could come in handy as he navigates the choppy waters in his new job at Chrysler.

Chrysler hired Press to run its sales and marketing operation Thursday, luring him away from Toyota Motor Corp., where he had headed North American operations for more than a year.

The move was seen as a major coup for Chrysler, which has been restructuring its top management since it was acquired this year by a private equity firm.

The No. 3 U.S. automaker has been struggling to compete against Toyota and other Asian rivals, and snaring one of the Japanese company's top executives could bring a new dimension to Chrysler's corporate thinking.

Press is the second Toyota defector to recently join Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler. Last month, it hired a top marketing executive from its competitor's Lexus luxury division -- which Press ran in the 1990s.

The 60-year-old Press will face two immediate challenges: managing the launch of crucial vehicles such as the Chrysler Town & Country minivan and Dodge Avenger sedan, and repairing the company's frayed relations with its dealers.

Both tasks should play to his strengths. As the key figure at Toyota's Torrance-based U.S. sales division from 1999 to 2005, Press served as the automaker's eyes and ears in this country and was credited with having a keen understanding of what appealed to U.S. drivers.

"He's smart enough to know how to bring to market what the customer wants," said Jim Hall, an analyst with Tustin-based consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. "And knowing the secret of how to put the customer No. 1 is how Toyota went from being an importer with their headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard to what may be the smartest car company on the planet."

Press helped lead Toyota's drive to the top of the global market for gasoline-electric hybrids and also managed the successful launch of the youth-focused Scion brand.

And he made Toyota a player in the U.S. minivan market by shepherding the Sienna to the No. 2 spot in the segment.

Press also displayed a talent for working with car dealers, which will be "incredibly important at Chrysler because Chrysler has bungled its relations with its dealers," said Michelle Krebs, editor of Edmunds' AutoObserver.com.

"If you have confident dealers, they can sell anything, and he can do a good job of firing them up."

The effect of Press' departure from Toyota is harder to predict.

During his years in Torrance and later at North American headquarters in New York, Press oversaw the growth of the automaker's U.S. market share from less than 10% to its current 16.2%. Toyota is poised to overtake Ford Motor Co. as the No. 2 car company in America.

Having an American in its top job in the U.S. was seen by some as a way for Toyota to defuse criticism that it was pushing domestic companies to the wall. Toyota and other Japanese automakers were prime targets of protectionist sentiment during the 1980s, when they first made serious inroads in the U.S. market.

This year, when Press was named the first -- and so far only -- American on Toyota's board of directors, it was noted that former Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda had been warning of a possible backlash as Ford, Chrysler and General Motors Corp. once again were on the ropes.

Press had pushed Toyota to expand its U.S. manufacturing facilities, and the company now operates 14 plants in North America, with a 15th under construction in Mississippi. Toyota is running an ad campaign that touts the jobs it creates in the U.S. -- its biggest market -- although the percentage of imported cars the company sells here has been rising as demand outstrips its North American production capacity.

"I think Toyota has to open up its board and upper management ranks to non-Japanese, and not just to Americans," said Krebs of AutoObserver.com. "If you are a global company, you should have global voices on your board."

Toyota named Shigeru Hayakawa, executive vice president of its North American division, to replace Press, whose resignation is effective Sept. 14.

The change at the top "doesn't mean a thing to the consumer," Krebs said. "I'll bet they didn't even know" that an American was running Toyota's U.S. operations.

"Jim Lentz and the crew in California are running the sales operations, and that's what really matters," she added, referring to the executive who succeeded Press in Torrance last year.

Press, a Los Angeles native who went to college in Kansas, joined Toyota in 1970 after a stint at Ford. Described as personable but highly competitive, he's an accomplished swimmer and licensed private pilot.

One Toyota executive described how Press liked to unwind after a 10-hour flight back to Southern California from Tokyo by heading straight for the pool to swim laps, after which he would be ready for a full day at the office.

After buying a majority stake in Chrysler, Cerberus Capital Management named former Home Depot Chief Executive Bob Nardelli to the top job. Press will share the titles of vice chairman and president with former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, who will continue to run the company's manufacturing and purchasing operations.

Chrysler didn't release details of Press' compensation but said that, like Nardelli's, it would be tied to the company's performance. In any case, said Hall of AutoPacific, the bigger lure for Press was probably the opportunity to help turn around a storied American automotive nameplate.

"If you can do that," he said, "you can almost walk on water."

martin.zimmerman @latimes.com

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