The automotive industry’s most influential leaders?

By: Andy Newbound

In a world increasingly driven and shaped by economic movers and shakers, few industries can rival the automotive industry for genuine global influence.

Cars matter, both to those who buy and drive them but also those who help to design and build them, and of course the dealers who sell them.

So, in homage to an industry that has such an influence over the way the world works, we thought we’d put together our first top-ten list of the automotive industry’s most influential leaders. Is your name on it?

10.) Travis Kalanick

Okay, so the Uber co-founder and CEO’s PR hasn’t been too great of late, and his staff engagement score might have taken a bit of a nosedive thanks to an ill-advised encounter with a disgruntled driver, but young Travis has vowed to learn from these experiences.

The 40-year-old former computer programmer from Los Angeles has helped to create the famous car-hailing app and transportation network business, building himself an estimated personal fortune of over $6billion. Whether you sympathise with his and his company’s current plight or not, there’s no denying that Kalanick has helped turn the global public transport industry on its head. And will probably continue to do so.

9.) Sebastian Thrun

Right now, we’re poised on the cusp of the next true automotive revolution. Sometime in the coming decade (and probably sooner rather than later) driverless cars will steer their way onto our roads. Google is helping to pioneer this work and the brains behind their driverless ventures is the Director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at California’s Stanford University, Sebastian Thrun.

Thrun’s AI lab developed ‘Stanley’, Google’s prototype driverless car that went on to scoop the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. In doing so, Thrun’s team created the DNA that now underpins Google’s work today. Driverless-Day is probably closer than any of us dare imagine, and when our world is transformed forever by the next-gen ‘Stanley’ and his like, we’ll all have Mr. Thrun to thank.

8.) Ralph Gilles

Ralph Gilles isn’t just the Head of Design for Fiat Chrysler Automotives, he’s also a former car designer, a great guy and by all accounts, he’s cool.

Ok, being cool doesn’t normally get on a top ten list of any kind (other than the World’s Coolest, perhaps) but there’s every chance Ralph’s coolness has been a key ingredient behind his success. After all, Ralph cut his teeth and made his name designing cool cars for Chrysler, including the Chrysler 300 and the (yep, you guessed it) ultra-cool 2014 SRT Viper.

He’s a genuine ‘car’ man, having designed his first concept car at the tender age of eight. It was just a sketch but his aunt thought he showed promise and sent the drawing to the Chrysler Chairman. They clearly saw his potential too, recommended a design school and the rest is history. Since then, Gilles has climbed the corporate ladder and we don’t expect him to stop any time soon.

7.) Li Shufu

This list is about influence and the real fuel behind influence is power. On the power scales, few can match the potential of China’s Li Shufu. As the Chairman of Zhejiang Geely Holding Co. Ltd, Shufu heads up a corporate behemoth that already manufactures cars, taxis, motorcycles and engines. It also owns the Volvo automotive brand and the iconic London Taxis brand.

This has helped position Shufu as China’s most powerful automotive executive and as such, he is at the head of the largest, most lucrative and mostly un-tapped car sales market in the world. With access to China’s political movers and shakers, Li Shufu is the gatekeeper to the next great car selling frontier (China already boasts over 300 million registered drivers in a nation of over 1.3billion people) and it is this position which could ultimately see him become the world’s most powerful automotive executive.

6.) Ratan Tata

If China’s Li Shufu is destined to become the King of the global automotive world, then India’s Ratan Tata could be the Prince. With a population almost as big as China’s but only an estimated 22million cars on its road, India can rightly boast to have even more potential for automotive sales than China.

In addition to owning Tata Cars, India’s largest automobile manufacturer, the Tata Group also owns iconic British brands Jaguar and Land Rover. This puts the group in prime position to capitalize on an exploding economy as it becomes hungry for the four-wheeled freedom that is second-nature for most of the Western world. As Chairman of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata wields genuine power and influence at home and also abroad.

5.) Carlos Ghosn

Bridging the worlds of the East and the West is the Current CEO of Renault-Nissan, Carlos Ghosn. Regarded by his peers a clever industrialist and business genius, Carlos is known for his transformation of Nissan from near bankruptcy into one of the world’s premier car manufacturers.

At the helm of Renault-Nissan, Brazil-born Ghosn has a foot in the Eastern and Western car buying markets. Of all the world’s major automobile manufacturers, is perhaps best placed to mount a challenge to the potential new-world dominance of the emerging Chinese and Indian mega-brands.

4.) Carlos Tavares

As a one-time understudy to Carlos Ghosn at Renault, Carlos Tavares was perhaps the natural choice as boss of the then ailing PSA Peugeot Citroën group. That was back in 2013; since then Tavares has transformed the company from a £5billion loss-making entity into a profit-making success story.

Indeed, under Tavares’ guidance, PSA Peugeot Citroën recently announced the proposed acquisition of the European branch of GM, which includes the Opel and Vauxhall brands. This is part of a global push that could include the company’s re-entry into the American market, perhaps reflecting Tavares’ ambition to expand the brand’s, and maybe his own influence on the global automotive sector.

3.) Mark Fields

As Ford CEO, Mark Fields is perhaps the most powerful and influential automotive executive in America. He sits at the helm of the world’s second largest car manufacturing market place, controlling what many still see as the most historically significant car brand of all time.

Indeed, it is this heritage that still enables him to outrank GM’s CEO for influence, despite GM selling more cars globally. As a singular brand, Ford is recognisable the world over and with its renewed focus on producing quality yet affordable cars, including their best-selling Ford Focus and flagship Shelby GT models, they are still one of the automotive world’s strongest manufacturers.

Despite this, Fields refuses to let Ford rest on its laurels. With one eye on the not-so-distant future, Fields recently led the acquisition of Argo AI, an artificial intelligence start up: A move perhaps designed to give Ford a foothold in the driverless car market and the chance to shape the next generation of automobiles.

2.) Sergio Marchionne

If the automotive industry was a game of Monopoly, Sergio Marchionne would be the undisputed King. As CEO of Fiat Chrysler, Sergio controls more of the world’s iconic brands than any other executive. These naturally include the parent brands of Fiat and Chrysler, plus Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and all their subsidiaries.

Control of this $multi-billion portfolio alone would put Sergio near the top of the influence tree, yet this tells only part of Sergio’s incredible success story. He is regarded as a driven workaholic and it is this energy that has clearly helped him transform the ailing giants Fiat and Chrysler into what is now the seventh largest car manufacturer in the world.

With so many car brands to juggle, it’s little wonder that Sergio has to work so hard and clearly deserves to rank near the summit of our industry influencers.

1.) Elon Musk

If cutting-edge technology is destined to change the automotive world forever, then we clearly have no choice but to reserve our number one spot for the co-founder and product architect of Telsa Inc, Elon Musk.

Driven by the modest vision to ‘transform the world’, Musk began by helping to create the revolutionary online payment portal, PayPal. With his first fortune safely banked, Musk next turned his attention to the automotive sector, launching his and the world’s first fully electronic sportscar, the Telsa Roadster in 2008. Today, Telsa makes electronic powertrain engines for brands including Mercedes, Toyota, Daimler and Smart and produces a range of fully electronic and beautifully designed Telsa saloons too.

As a true techno-pioneer, Musk and Telsa seem best placed to take advantage of the industry’s drive towards more environmentally-friendly vehicles and who knows, driverless car technology?

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