PHILIP NUSSEL

Lear's Rossiter, an auto industry survivor

Philip Nussel is managing editor of autonews.com.Philip Nussel is managing editor of autonews.com.
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Today's Automotive News pop quiz: Can you name a CEO who has stayed with the same company for 40 years, participated in a leveraged buyout, tried to sell the company against the wishes of shareholders and then successfully reorganized it under Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

I doubt you'll find another one besides Lear's Bob Rossiter.

If there is ever a reality TV show called "Survivor: The Boardroom," Rossiter would be the star.

Rossiter, 65, on Wednesday announced he would retire at month's end from the helm of Lear Corp. His successor will be Lear CFO Matt Simoncini, 50.

Rossiter will leave behind a seating and electronics supplier with a strong balance sheet, an aggressive acquisition plan and a solid book of business with automakers. He's the fifth-highest-paid executive in the North American auto industry after collecting compensation valued at $14.7 million in 2010.

Not bad for a guy who started out in 1971 as a production scheduler for a seating supplier then known as Lear Siegler Seating Corp.

About 17 years later, he took out a second mortgage on his home and joined a leveraged buyout of the company. It later went public in 1994 and grew throughout the 1990s during the merger and acquisition boom days of the auto supply chain. He succeeded his longtime boss, Ken Way, as CEO in 2000.

Rossiter might have been able to retire a little earlier had he sold the company -- as planned -- in 2007 to legendary Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, who also controls supplier Federal-Mogul Corp. But a group of shareholders rebelled against the $37.25 per share ($2.9 billion) deal and voted it down.

Incredibly, Rossiter kept his job.

Then the economy tanked and Lear hemorrhaged cash as customers such as GM and Chrysler drastically cut production. Rossiter took Lear into bankruptcy in July 2009, and struck a deal with creditors to reorganize in November of that year.

Again, Rossiter kept his job.

Now he gets to retire on his own terms -- and happily turn over the reins of the world's 14th-largest auto supplier to his loyal CFO.

If Rossiter does anything else in retirement, I hope he writes a book about corporate leadership and survival. He certainly earned credibility on those topics. I think 87,000 Lear employees around the world would agree.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog said Icahn's offer was worth $5.3 billion. That figure included debt assumption.

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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