General Motors has a new chief executive, Ford finally disclosed it keeps its old leader and Chrysler’s CEO averted a divisive public offering.
Five years after the U.S. auto industry’s searing restructuring, 2014 is shaping up as a test of leadership at GM, Ford and Chrysler – while the risks ahead are no longer life-threatening, how the companies respond will set their direction for years to come and signal whether the lessons of the financial crisis were learned.
Analysts see 2014 as a transition year, with slowing growth in the U.S. auto market and companies facing a renewed mandate to gain ground overseas. The 2015 contract talks with the United Auto Workers union also loom in the background.
GM vaulted its product development chief, Mary Barra, to the top spot last month. Ford CEO Alan Mulally ended months of speculation by saying that he would not leave to run Microsoft. And on New Year’s Day, Sergio Marchionne struck a long-sought deal allowing him to finally merge completely Chrysler and Italy’s Fiat, the two automakers he has led since 2009.
“In fixing a company, the issues you have to deal with are very apparent because they are the issues that make or break a business,” independent auto consultant Maryann Keller said. “When you’re running a company, you’ve got options,” she added. “You’re not fixing anything, it’s not financially broken anymore, but dealing with a very competitive market place is actually in some respects harder.”
Each U.S. automaker enters the year at a different stage of its transformation, with Ford in first place, followed by GM and then Chrysler, according to many analysts and industry observers. The positions reflect the speed at which each company has been able to restructure.
What all three U.S. automakers have in common are the labor talks each will face in 2015 with the United Auto Workers union, which represents many of the companies’ hourly U.S. workers.