In February, Cheryl Miller finished as runner-up in the race to replace Mike Jackson as the next leader of AutoNation Inc.
Five months later, Miller is in the driver's seat as CEO of the nation's largest new-vehicle retailer after the company's surprise breakup last week with the outsider it initially picked for the role.
With 11 years at AutoNation, including the last five as CFO, Miller, 47, already has an agenda in mind. While it largely involves executing plans already in place, Miller aims to put her own stamp on the company. And Miller says she won't shy away from pushing back if necessary against Jackson, who remains AutoNation's executive chairman through at least 2021 and whose outsized presence still looms at the company.
"Let's be clear. Mike and I are not always fully aligned on stuff," Miller told Automotive News last week after being named to replace Jackson's initial successor, Carl Liebert, as CEO. "We come to a point of alignment, but that doesn't always mean we have full consensus. If we had full consensus on everything, we're not adding anything to each other."
And when she nudges Jackson, described by one auto industry analyst as the most dominant personality in auto retail, he listens. "Sometimes he says, 'I heard you the first time,' " Miller told analysts last week. "But I tell him the second and third time."
Miller will report to Jackson, who has promised publicly that she will be in charge. Last week he called Miller "CEO-ready, day one."
"She's a winner. She has the confidence. She inspires confidence," said Jackson, 70, who helmed AutoNation for two decades before stepping down as CEO in March. "She's unflappable."
Last week's announcement stunned many in the industry: Miller would replace Liebert, an auto industry outsider AutoNation just months ago had hired away from financial services company USAA for his logistics and digital platforms expertise. (See story above.) But Miller, with nearly 20 years of auto industry experience, had been the company's No. 2 pick in February when Liebert was selected, Jackson said. This time around, she was the board's unanimous choice during a July 22 meeting.