updated 9/7/2007 6:04:46 PM ET 2007-09-07T22:04:46

In its first five weeks of owning Chrysler, Cerberus Capital Management LP has gone on a hiring binge, signing up a chief executive, poaching Toyota's respected North American chief, enticing a top marketing executive from Lexus and snagging a former General Motors Corp. official with a background in globalization.

And according to management experts and executive recruiters, the spree probably isn't over as the New York private equity firm lures talent with the promise of riches once the ailing Chrysler is fixed and sold.

"This is a classic private equity turnaround," said James E. Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "Step one: Buy it cheap. Step Two: Find the very best people in the world to fix it. Step Three: Get it back on the public market."

It's in the resale where the very best people get their payoff, if they can raise the value of Chrysler LLC well beyond the $7.4 billion deal in which Cerberus acquired 80.1 percent of the company from Daimler last month.

The possibility of big money based on the company's performance is likely what led Jim Press, Toyota Motor Corp.'s top North American executive, to gamble on Chrysler, ending a wildly successful 37-year career with what many believe to be the best-run auto company in the world.

Chrysler announced Thursday that Press, 60, would become vice chairman and president in charge of sales, marketing and product strategy, areas in which Toyota excelled under his leadership.

On Friday the company turned to China, hiring SAIC Motor Corp.'s Phil Murtaugh as chief executive of its Asian operations. Murtaugh, a former GM executive, will help Chrysler expand in fast-growing global markets where it now has little presence.

The hires, Schrager said, likely were made by Cerberus leaders in concert with the man they picked to be Chrysler's chairman and chief executive, Bob Nardelli, formerly head of The Home Depot Inc.

Hiring Press and Murtaugh are signs that Nardelli is becoming less autocratic than he was at Home Depot, pulling in top-notch experts from the auto industry, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management.

Nardelli was surrounded by yes men at Home Depot, Sonnenfeld said, but the new hires show he has learned from his experience there.

"He had a predictable execution team that veered toward blind loyalty," Sonnenfeld said. "There was not a lot of room for dissent. Now you're going to have people who will be challenging him."

Industry observers don't think Cerberus and Nardelli are done hiring, although Nardelli told reporters on Friday that there would be no more surprises with new executives.

With Chrysler's declining sales, many believe a top-notch product design leader is a possibility, along with someone to lead development of cutting-edge technology.

The automaker also needs to raise its quality level, said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power and Associates, which does annual quality surveys of the auto industry.

Chrysler also doesn't have strong enough products in key categories such as mid-sized and compact cars, and Dodge, its mainstream brand, won't have a car-based crossover vehicle until next year.

"Some people would say that their design is not perhaps leading edge," Libby said. "They're behind in their product portfolio in general. At this point they're playing catch-up."

As Chrysler and Cerberus search for executives, look for some of Chrysler's top talent to leave as well, said Chris Clarke, president and CEO of Boyden World Corp., an executive recruiting firm.

"Executive searchers circle such firms like vultures, seeking to dive on well-proven, unsettled talent," he said.

Some experts predicted it would be tough to have so many people used to being in charge all vying to run the show at Chrysler. One is former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, demoted to vice chairman and president when Nardelli was hired.

But Nardelli told reporters on Friday that they're all on the same team.

"Tom, Jim and myself have all said, 'The first thing we do is check our egos at the door,'" Nardelli said.

He also said rescuing Chrysler is about more than making money.

"This is more than financial. This is about trying to bring Chrysler, this unbelievable iconic brand, to its proper place."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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