New Chrysler chief has roots in labor


DETROIT - Thomas W. LaSorda has a background unlike any other top auto executive in Detroit: The union runs in his blood.

LaSorda, a 51-year-old Canadian, was named yesterday as chief executive of DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler division, succeeding Dieter Zetsche, who will head the parent company. While the Ford Motor Co.'s top executive, William Clay Ford Jr., for example, is the nephew, grandson and great-grandson of former leaders of his company, LaSorda's lineage is on the union side of the fence.

His blue-collar roots and long experience on the plant floor continue Chrysler's predilection for executives rooted in the core business of producing cars and trucks, instead of in finance. Some analysts have said that that emphasis, which has been more typical of Japanese and European automakers, has helped fuel Chrysler's recent revival.

LaSorda's ascension also comes as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are pressing unions in Canada and the United States to agree to scale back labor costs.

LaSorda's father, Frank, led the union local in Windsor, Ontario, during Chrysler's most difficult days, when a government bailout and concessions from the union were required to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy.

And his grandfather, Harry Rooney, was a union leader during a strike over wages in the 1940s; Chrysler wanted him jailed for his role, and so did the Canadian government, which failed to convict him of conspiracy after two trials.

"These kids all grew up knowing that story," LaSorda's mother, Bea, said in an interview last year. "I always had mixed feelings about Chrysler after that strike."

Now her son will take over the leadership of Chrysler at the beginning of next year.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, an industry consulting firm, said the elevation of LaSorda "reinforces the idea that we're going to see more representation by strong technical people in senior leadership."

"That's been typical in the past and seems to be typical again," Cole said, "so you don't have five bean counters and only one engineer."

Zetsche is an engineer by training. LaSorda, who joined Chrysler in 2000 after a long career as a top manufacturing executive at GM, is a specialist at improving efficiency on the plant floor. Eric Ridenour, who will succeed LaSorda as Chrysler's chief operating officer, is an engineer who serves as an executive vice president for product development.

LaSorda's greatest challenge may be maintaining the innovative product development course set by Zetsche and Wolfgang Bernhard, a top Volkswagen executive who was Zetsche's top deputy.

"As one who has seen the product portfolio for the next three or four years, it's done, on the way and it will be produced with exceptional quality and productivity rates," said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the largest Chrysler dealer.

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