The siren song of the Internet is sounding through the top tiers of the automotive industry.
Since March, at least six top-ranking executives and automotive insiders have decided to leave the relatively secure manufacturing world for the glamorous and uncertain land of dot-com.
Headhunters came calling for Joe Kennedy, the former vice president of marketing at Saturn Corp. E-loan.com, a Dublin, Calif., Internet company, was looking for experienced brand strategists to help stake out its turf on the Web. Janina Pawlow-ski, one of e-loan.com's founders, had followed Saturn, gathering news stories and learning the names of people who played key roles in developing and promoting the Saturn brand.
Kennedy, who was promoted to president of e-loan.com last month, saw his monthly paycheck slashed 50 percent when he left Saturn. But he signed up for options to buy 747,000 shares of stock for $2 a share, according to company documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. So far, his gamble is paying off.
E-loan.com went public in June at $14 a share and immediately rocketed to a high of $63. The price has settled down, but even if Kennedy exercised the options at last week's price of about $23, he would realize about $15 million.
Still, giving up a career with General Motors was anything but a slam dunk, said the 40-year-old Kennedy. After all, he had worked for the automaker since he was a 22-year-old college intern.
'It was clear GM wasn't going to go out of business in the next three years. But e-loan.com might,' Kennedy said. 'The popular press makes it sound like every Internet company is off the charts. But the reality is that most e-commerce companies don't make it.'
Unlike many of his counterparts, who were lured away from jobs in mid-career, Ron Goldsberry already had planned his retirement from Ford when Internet opportunity came knocking. Goldsberry, 57, will retire at year end from his post at Ford.
Goldsberry said he considers himself an entrepreneur. And while innovation is highly prized at Ford, he isn't free to rewrite the company's game plan. The chance to lead a new company ultimately led him to CarStation.com.
Offers from philanthropic organizations and other corporations were already on the table early this summer when Goldsberry flew to San Francisco and had a three-hour breakfast meeting in the airport with the founders of CarStation.com. Shortly after that meeting, Goldsberry was on board as chairman and CEO of the Internet company.
'The thing that was attractive to me about CarStation.com was the role it plays in business-to-business commerce. That's where the future is going to be, so I wanted to be in on it,' he said. CarStation.com uses the Internet to support sales among collision-repair suppliers, parts vendors and insurance companies.
And there was the new company's location. Goldsberry went to school at Stanford University, and some of his children live in the San Francisco Bay area. Goldsberry will start working at CarStation.com as soon as he steps down from Ford, he said. 'Things are moving so fast, I don't have any choice but to get rolling right away.'
David Ropes said a headhunter, acting on recommendations from several people, contacted him about zuniversity.com, a startup in New York. Ropes left Ford Motor Co. Dec. 3 as director of corporate advertising and integrated marketing. He is now executive vice president of the Internet site providing services to college students and alumni.
Ropes believes his biggest accomplishment at Ford was upgrading the automaker's Web site, ford.com, and expanding it early this year to the so-called connections areas. With these connections, consumers, dealers and owners can communicate more easily with Ford.
'Those of us participating in Internet concepts are beginning to discern what has a chance to succeed and what does not,' Ropes said.
Through zuniversity.com, students keep the Web addresses they get from participating universities for life, connecting them as alumni, he explained.
Kim Gaynor gave his notice Thanksgiving week to the Southfield, Mich., office of ad agency FCB Worldwide, where he oversaw major accounts for DaimlerChrysler. He's joining ZapMe! Corp. in San Ramon, Calif.
The company, which recently went public, generates revenues by charging sponsorship fees to corporations that provide content to its Internet site at zapme.com. ZapMe! Corp. offers students free computers and Internet access through programs with high schools.
Bozell Worldwide transferred Gaynor from its Dallas office in 1990 to head the ad agency's Detroit office, renamed FCB earlier this year. He was unavailable for comment.
While the executives have decided to leave the auto industry, the auto industry hasn't left them.
Goldsberry said he has several automotive strategic alliances in the works, which he'll unveil shortly after he starts work at CarStation.com.
E-loan.com specializes in home mortgages but recently branched out into automotive financing.
Said Kennedy: 'I had no expectation of being connected with the auto industry in any way after I left Saturn. It's funny how these things come around.'