What’s in an Auto CEO? It’s Anybody’s Guess

I’ve always been more curious about the differences in the backgrounds and ideologies of the big auto OEM CEOs than the similarities. Why? Because there are a few stark and surprising differences that seem to disrupt an otherwise fairly guessable resume for the people at the top of the car food chain. Let’s analyze the following companies, selected not to conform to my biases but rather for the sake of convenience.

Mercedes-Benz: Dieter Zetsche

Age, Place of Birth: 61, Istanbul

Education: electrical engineering, engineering doctorate

Duration at Mercedes: 39 years

Duration in car industry: 39 years

BMW: (soon to be) Harald Krueger

Age, Place of Birth: 50, Germany

Education: mechanical engineering

Duration at BMW: 23 years

Duration in car industry: 23 years

Cadillac: Johan de Nysschen

Age, Place of Birth: 54, unknown

Education: BA in economics, commerce and MBA in finance and marketing

Duration at Cadillac: 6 months

Duration in car industry: 34 years

Audi: Rupert Stadler

Age, Place of Birth: 51, Germany

Education: business management, finance

Duration at Audi (VW Group): 18 years

Duration in car industry: 18 years

Toyota: Akio Toyoda

Age, Place of Birth: 58, Japan

Education: business administration, law

Duration at Toyota: 31 years

Duration in car industry: 31 years

Ford: Mark Fields

Age, Place of Birth: 53, Brooklyn

Education: economics undergrad, MBA

Duration at Ford: 26 years

Duration in car industry: 26 years

Nissan: Carlos Ghosn

Age, Place of Birth: 60, Brazil

Education: engineering

Duration at Nissan: 19 years

Duration in car industry: 19 years

Jaguar/Land Rover: Ralf Speth

Age, Place of Birth: 59, Germany

Education: mechanical engineering

Duration at Jaguar/Land Rover: 5 years

Duration in car industry: 35 years

VW: Martin Winterkorn

Age, Place of Birth: 67, Germany

Education: metallurgy and physics

Duration at VW: 22 years

Duration in car industry: 22 years

Fiat/Chrysler: Sergio Marchionne

Age, Place of Birth: 62, Italy

Education: philosophy, business, law

Duration at Fiat/Chrysler: 11 years

Duration in car industry: 11 years

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of CEOs and is probably skewed in more than one way, a couple interesting patterns and weird outliers seem to emerge. First, despite common sense, there are some very successful CEOs on this list that haven’t touched engineering in their schooling. Among the main three luxury German brands, Audi’s Stadler comes from the business side. Further, there seems to be businessmen and engineers in both mass and premium brands, and a similar mix appears when comparing CEOs that have turned around flailing OEMs versus those that have been historically strong.

Looking at the years they’ve spent with the respective companies and where they’re from does not seem to help create a clear pattern either. Yes, the CEOs tend to come from their homeland, but that’s about as far as one can surmise. Also, a good number of CEOs have been at their company since they entered the workforce, but plenty others have switched around and dabbled into multiple companies.

So is there a formula for who is more likely to succeed into becoming an auto CEO one day? Based on the very limited data I pulled, no. But I believe that by not having a clear pattern of who is CEO material tells us something else about the automotive industry as a whole – it’s not about where you came from, what you studied, or where you’ve worked. In this industry, there is no one formula for success because there are so many ways to succeed (and fail). You can have the most fuel efficient cars, the most profitable cars, the most technologically advanced cars, the most popular cars, the most reliable cars, the fastest cars, the safest cars, or the most differentiated product line of cars.

In any industry, a CEO chooses the direction of the company. In the car industry, the best direction a CEO can choose entails a similar answer to the question of who makes a successful automotive CEO – your guess is as good as mine. The successful auto CEOs have an answer to this question, but it does not appear that a learned skill set or background has prepared them to answer it.


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