Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009

Jalopnik's Best10 week marches on with ten people who thrived while the industry was on its knees, ten guys who made a difference in difficult times. Powarrrr!

2009 was a weird and depressing year. The individuals who raised the bar did so because they thought outside the box. They climbed the ladder; they broke through the glass ceiling. They stretched the envelope, reworked a zero-sum game, and gave 110 percent. Here at Jalopnik, we're like a big family, so we figured it best to peel back the onion. Remember: There is no "i" in "team." The medium is the message. No pain, no gain!

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Brian Deese
Position: Special Assistant To The President For Economic Policy
Age: 31

When they write the book on the fall and rise of Detroit, there will undoubtedly be a chapter on Brian Deese. Deese is a thirty-one-year-old, Boston-bred law-school dropout who looks like the stoner MBA candidate you roomed with in college. In spite of that, he is essentially in charge of remaking the American auto industry and, as the New York Times put it, "rewriting capitalism."

Deese's career arc is nuts. He went to Middlebury College, interrupted his stint at Yale Law School to work for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and signed with Obama before he won the White House. For a few months after election day, he was the only full-time member of the government's automotive task force.

Make no mistake: The kid is good. He crunched the numbers and was the first to point out that GM and Chrysler's revitalization plans focused little on new revenue. He also convinced his masters that supporting Chrysler's bankruptcy would be roughly as expensive as helping Fiat take control. Lawrence Summers, the head of the National Economic Council, claims that Deese grasps economic and political concepts as quickly as anyone he's ever seen. Based on what we've seen so far, that's an easy pill to swallow. Brian Deese is arguably the most important man in Detroit, and he doesn't even live there.

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Takeo Fukui
Position: President/CEO, Honda
Age: 64

It is no exaggeration to say that Honda is one of the most envied companies on the planet. Its employees are ferociously loyal, its in-house culture fosters innovation, and its design philosophy rests on a foundation of free thinking and purposeful simplicity. It is one of the few global manufacturing concerns that can be said to have a personality, and that personality can be traced directly back to the company's founder.

Takeo Fukui is well aware of this. Fukui has been Honda's CEO for six years, but he started his life at the Big H as an engineer in 1969. His employment heritage comes through in his reluctance to follow industry trends, in his devotion to Soichiro Honda's founding principles. His independence is his calling card: He has kept his company focused on what it does best, refusing to follow product fads or chase after cheap, short-term sales. That focus has served him and his company well — Honda is the world's largest engine manufacturer, you can identify its cars blindfolded, and its ledger has been firmly in the black for as long as anyone can remember. Corporate envy or not, we think Mr. Honda would approve.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: John Krafcik
Position: President/CEO, Hyundai Motor America
Age: n/a

We first met John Krafcik when he worked as Hyundai's vice president of product planning. At the time, he was a charismatic, optimistic, live-wire kind of guy, the sort of dude that usually gets stamped down by corporate culture. Years later, he is exactly the same, but he now runs the company. Score one for enthusiasm.

For that matter, score one for Hyundai. The Korean manufacturer is doing better in a crappy year than any carmaker has a right to, much less a brand once known for off-the-mark luxury attempts and sub-par econoboxes. Each new Hyundai is better than the last. The company no longer fills its showrooms with rolling jokes, choosing instead to populate them with cars that fit the needs of normal people. Hyundai's market share (four percent) is larger than it's ever been, and the company saw an amazing 27-percent bump in U.S. sales in 2009. (For reference, the rest of the industry suffered a 22 percent drop.)

Krafcik is at the center of all of this. You get the impression that he's Hyundai's version of Nissan's Yutaka Katayama (the famous Mr. K), a man who understands America and can explain its needs to an Asian corporation. Like Mr. K, Krafcik seems to genuinely love the cars he sells, or at the very least, believe in them wholeheartedly. The rest of the industry could learn something from him.

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Bob Lutz
Position: Vice Chairman, General Motors
Age: 76

Someone once said Bob Lutz is Detroit's product-planning cockroach, the cigar-chomping, jet-flying suit who just won't die. We like Bob a lot — and more important, we dig the cars he champions — so we prefer to think of that as a compliment. Lutz's personality is charmingly un-PC, and he wears his emotions on his sleeve; he's like a prickly grandfather who happens to love 180-mph motorcycles and blinding tire smoke. (Sure, he once called global warming a "total crock of shit," but whose pop-pop hasn't spit out a few loonies?)

2009 saw Lutz more active than usual. GM's public image waxed and waned this year, but Bob was always there, always offering a candid word and trying to push through one badass project or another. His forty-year industry career has followed a pattern: He accomplishes wonders, creates gems, tries to retire, and gets sucked back in. Lather, rinse, repeat. General Motors, along with Detroit, is a better place for his influence. If the Lutzroach ever gets stamped out, it'll be a sad day indeed.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Sergio Marchionne
Position: CEO, Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group
Age: 57

Sergio Marchionne is one talented dude. What else can you say about a man who began his career as a Canadian accountant and worked his way up to head of Fiat S.p.A.?

With the exception of a few charismatic hand gestures and a penchant for chain-smoking, Marchionne barely seems Italian. He doesn't wear flashy clothes, his accent often disappears, and he cites Apple Computer — not some high-margin continental brand — as having the ideal business model. He even left Italy as a teenager, choosing instead to become an accountant and tax specialist in Canada. But appearances aside, Marchionne is little more than Superman in a collared shirt: He rescued Fiat from ruin in a few short years, and in the past few months, he's made shocking progress with Auburn Hills.

After helping purchase Chrysler for relative pennies, Marchionne quickly pulled it out of Chapter 11 and put it on a new track. Chrysler's new product plan incorporates a hefty dose of Fiat technology, and the company's organizational structure has already been completely revamped. There's no telling how things will turn out, but we have hope: The accountant will fix it.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009

Name: Alan Mulally
Position: President/CEO, Ford Motor Company
Age: 64

More than anything else, Alan Mulally is a businessman. He has spent his tenure at Ford seemingly unbothered by Detroit's circling storm, his eyes clearly focused on the job at hand. From day one, he has treated his business like A Business, never losing sight of what the product means. And he has done it all with an aw-shucks grin and an air of confidence.

In 2006, Mulally mortgaged his company's assets and borrowed $23 billion to protect against what he presciently called "a recession or . . . unexpected event." The financial cushion that created helped Ford avoid a government handout, giving Dearborn a relative sense of independence and agility. He has developed new vehicles, consolidated dealerships, ditched ailing brands, and avoided bankruptcy. When he moved to Detroit, he famously drove a Lexus LS430, calling it "the finest car in the world" and noting that U.S. automakers had a real shot at producing the best cars on the planet. In other words, he has perspective.

Alan, Detroit — nay, the world — is your oyster. You make us believe in the power of the D. Keep it up.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Steven Rattner
Position: Former Auto Industry Advisor, U.S. Treasury ("Car Czar")
Age: 57

Who is Steven Rattner? In short, he's a Wall Street financier and former New York Times reporter who had no automotive experience prior to his government appointment. He helped restructure GM and Chrysler following bankruptcy and an enormous bailout. He's credited with forcing though significant — and often severe — reductions at both companies. He worked with diabolical speed and reportedly engineered the ousting of GM CEO Rick Wagoner. He's been tied to influence-peddling accusations made by the New York State Attorney General. And he resigned suddenly in July.

Rattner is an intelligent guy, a force to be reckoned with, and undoubtedly good at what he does. Frankly, however, he gives us the creeps. He made a big impact. Let's just leave it at that.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Joel Ewanick
Position: Vice President Of Marketing, Hyundai
Age: n/a

In retrospect, it was painfully simple: Buy a Hyundai. If you lose your job and can't keep up with the payments, the company will take your car back. The program was called Hyundai Assurance, and it put Joel Ewanick, Hyundai's vice president of marketing, in the industry spotlight. The result? Cars flew off the Korean carmaker's lots and very few of them came back. By tapping into a nationwide sense of unease, Ewanick helped foster public affection for Hyundai — something the company had always lacked — while sending sales through the roof. Had it happened in a healthy economy, it would have been smart. That it took place in a nasty one? Genius.

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: Barack Obama
Position: President, The United States Of America
Age: 48

It is no exaggeration to say that in the latter half of 2008, Detroit was falling apart. The U.S. Senate had rejected any further aid for the town's ailing manufacturers, and though President Bush stepped in with TARP funds, the money seemed to do little. Upon entering office, President Obama handed out more cash, but there were strings attached: He stuck one hand on the helm of D-Town's sinking ship, assembling advisors to help steer it off the rocks.

In a nutshell, Obama initiated the single biggest shake-up in the American auto industry since the birth of the UAW. No politician has ever made as large of an impact on Detroit, nor moved with such staggering (for big government, at least) swiftness. You may not agree with his policy, but you can't argue with its significance.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jalopnik's Best10 Auto Industry Power Players Of 2009


Name: The Potential American Car-Buying Public, a.k.a. The Millions Of Consumers Who Didn't Show Up
Age: Varied

Hey, you! Yeah, you in the sneakers, with the moldy checkbook! You read the reviews, you watched the dealer ads, and you stayed at home on the couch, content to drive your aging hoopty and watch TV. You, sir, are a power player! You've made one heck of a dent in the American auto industry, as have your non-car-buying pals! How's it feel to change the course of history?

Note: We don't fault you for not buying a car; hell, we didn't buy one, either. (It's not like anyone had any money, right?) Isn't playing with the economy neat?