Jim Holden was given a secret mission in late 1995: Explore a possible joint venture between Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG in emerging markets.
Holden, then Chrysler's vice president of quality management, advised against the project, saying the companies would be combining their weaknesses, not their strengths.
But last year, Chrysler and Daimler-Benz stunned the industry by merging. And now, ironically, Holden is a beneficiary of the combination that he, at least at one early point, advised against.
Holden is the new president of DaimlerChrysler's U.S. operations, succeeding Tom Stallkamp, who will retire Dec. 31. The moves were announced Sept. 24 as part of a major management shuffle.
Holden's promotion is being applauded by U.S. dealers, who view him as practically one of their own. But despite his diplomatic style and ambition, it is not clear whether he will be a strong voice for U.S. interests in Stuttgart.
Will he enter the inner circle of strong-willed Chairman Juergen Schrempp? Or will he simply be in charge of carrying out orders from Germany? The company said he was not available to be interviewed for this story.
Holden, 48, worked his way up Chrysler's sales and marketing ladder in the 1980s and 1990s. After the 1998 merger, he was named to the management board in charge of sales and marketing of the Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Dodge brands.
Holden created a dealership-improvement program and launched a massive dealer consolidation. He has staunchly supported the existing franchised dealer network.
'I'm sitting here thinking my franchise is really protected right now,' said Dan Frost, owner of Southfield Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep in Southfield, Mich. 'Jim's going to be a very, very good asset. This is probably the smartest move I've ever seen a company make.'
In recent years, Holden:
Initiated Project 2000, the consolidation of Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships with Jeep-Eagle dealerships.
Created a new Five Star program that rewards dealers for implementing and maintaining strict standards for quality and customer service. So far, 1,635 of the 4,450 Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep-Dodge dealerships have earned Five Star certification.
Refrained from any dramatic factory-ownership experiments, such as Ford's consolidations and GM's plan to buy as many as 770 dealerships.
Killed the Eagle brand and now is dismantling the Plymouth brand.
As they watch other automakers experiment with factory-owned stores, the dealers see Holden and Ted Cunningham as keepers of the faith.
Cunningham has been named executive vice president of global sales and marketing for the Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Dodge brands.
There is a chemistry between Holden and Cunningham that creates a formidable team, said Tom Barenboim, vice chairman of the Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep National Dealer Advisory Council.
'They believe in the dealer body and the system that we have in distribution, which is critically important to all of us,' said Barenboim, owner of Clark Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep in Methuen, Mass.
It would have been easy for Holden to complete Project 2000 by tempting dealers with money, said John Gunning, who owns Manassas Dodge in Manassas, Va.
'They have steadfastly refused to do that,' Gunning said. 'From that standpoint, I don't think he's thrown the company's money around.'