Carlos Tavares, CEO of newly formed Stellantis, took a most unusual route to the corner office.While he was No. 2 to Carlos Ghosn at Renault in 2013, he told a reporter — David Welch, my Bloomberg News colleague at the time — that he was interested in being CEO of a major automaker, and the prospects looked best at General Motors or Ford Motor Co.From a career-development perspective, the logic was sound. As for internal relations, it looked like a gaffe or a suicide mission: To publicly say he wanted to run another company was like asking to be fired. A top editor wasn’t sure we should run the story, thinking Welch must have misunderstood what Tavares was saying or how he was saying it. Maybe he meant it to be off the record or as a “person familiar with the matter.”Nope. Tavares knew what he was doing.
“We have a big leader and he is here to stay,” Tavares said of Ghosn at the time. “Anyone who is passionate about the auto industry comes to a conclusion that there is a point where you have the energy and appetite for a No. 1 position.”Tavares soon departed Renault, and he didn’t get either Detroit job. But he did get to take over struggling PSA, where he did fantastic work. He turned around PSA, acquired Opel and Vauxhall from GM and made them profitable, too. All of which put Automotive News’ 2019 Industry Leader of the Year in position to merge PSA with Fiat Chrysler, which would mean working with his esteemed friend Mike Manley and running a company that’s bigger than GM or Ford. Making it work will be another challenge altogether, but maybe he’s actually capable of doing it. Just before the Stellantis merger closed, Automotive News reporter Vince Bond and I sat down for a video call with Tavares. Like most top executives, he seems smart and confident. There’s an ego there, but also a sense that he’s part of something bigger than himself — something that will outlive him. He talked about what it was like to work with teams that developed cost-saving ideas from the bottom up — and raised their own targets. And they will be central, he said, to shaping the company’s plans for the future. Because it’s the younger managers and engineers — those in their 30s and 40s — who will have to live with and execute the strategic decisions made this year. If they have a hand in writing them, they will have their heart in fulfilling them.(Or, I would suggest, the right to recognize when the circumstances have changed, requiring a shift in plans.)”We are working to make sure that the next generation, to whom we are going to hand over [the management], is going to have a stronger and more competitive company than the one we received,” he told us. I’m not saying Tavares is the only CEO type to get that — Bill Ford, Mary Barra, Akio Toyoda quickly spring to mind. But he speaks about it in a way that is inspiring and empowering. And grounding. He’s very fond of saying that only 10 percent of success is in the planning — 90 percent is determined by the execution.
His new role seems most analogous to that of the late Sergio Marchionne or his old boss Ghosn. Tavares strikes me as an interesting cross between the two, who were polar opposites. All are or were supremely capable and confident — let’s get that out of the way upfront.Like Ghosn, Tavares is orderly and ready with a multipoint argument for all relevant business matters. But Ghosn was known to set tough goals from the top down and demand that his team meet them — the converse of Tavares’ tack so far.Like Marchionne, Tavares has a disarming and deceptively informal style, but seemingly without the stereotypical alpha-male games — such as poker nights with executives who hadn’t seen their families in days or weeks.Tavares’ approach as somewhat of a servant leader is distinct from those two titans, and it may allow him to achieve a harmony in his global conglomeration that had been missing at the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance and perhaps even at FCA. It may. Stellantis is good strategic idea. Now comes the other 90 percent.