The Most Influential Auto Leaders of 2023

By | December 21, 2023

DETROIT — It’s a tough job being the boss in the auto industry. Some leaders carry the weight of the task better than others, and every year a handful of leaders stand apart from the herd because of the resulting impact they have on the business. This year was one of the most eventful years in recent history in the automotive world. From the UAW’s Stand Up Strike to the industry’s ongoing transition to electric vehicles, there were few dull moments. In compiling this list, I looked at key decisions that will reverberate for years to come and impact consumers and, in some broader cases, society.

Here is my list of industry leaders that had the biggest impact in 2023.

No. 1: Shawn Fain

The fire-breathing leader of the United Auto Workers stripped major concessions from Detroit’s Big Three and called for an unprecedented national strike that would reset labor relations in America for years to come. Fain is an unlikely leader. He won a razor-thin victory to secure the UAW presidency in March, and faced seasoned executives like General Motors’ Mary Barra and Ford’s Jim Farley in negotiations. After a six-week strike, Fain emerged with an undisputed victory for his union.

Although he won significant concessions from the Big Three, Fain did an even better job of controlling the message and enlisting powerful allies, including President Biden, in his fight for better wages and benefits. He deftly applied maximum pressure on Detroit executives, but ultimately accepted a deal that increased wages by 25% over the life of the contract – less than his original demands of 40%. While the union made brash statements about leaving the automakers “wounded for months,” the contract ended up as a viable compromise despite the rhetoric from all sides. Case in point: GM claimed a $9.3 billion hit from the strike, while at the same time issuing a $10 billion share buyback plan to boost dividends.

In broad terms, Fain did more than just secure a tactical victory over management. That’s been done before. On the contrary, he ignited the passion of a labor movement not seen in this country for decades. He tapped into Americans’ mood to organize for better wages, something casino workers, nurses, actors and writers all ran for their jobs this year. It’s no coincidence that Honda, Toyota and Hyundai gave their factory workers raises immediately after the UAW workers ratified their contracts, and Fain has already raised rumors about organizing Tesla and Volkswagen as well. I wouldn’t bet against him.

No. 2: Elon Musk

Tesla’s CEO is a tornado of disruption in the auto industry. We haven’t seen him in decades. There aren’t many apt comparisons. If Lee Iacocca or Henry Ford II had acted on every crazy impulse, or if John Z. DeLorean actually had sufficient working capital, we might have seen something approaching Musk’s ubiquity. But those are just cars. The Tesla CEO also owns X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and runs SpaceX, which shoots rockets into space. Frankly, it’s surprising that one man has so much power over society.

He also makes highly offensive statements, has somehow alienated both American political parties, and at one point managed to irritate virtually everyone in the auto industry.

Musk oversees the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer. He proved prescient when he invested in Tesla’s Supercharger network, and this year almost every automaker has signed up to use it. While other companies focused solely on EV technology – or resisted it – Musk realized that charging infrastructure is just as important as the cars themselves. It’s been an uneven year for Musk, to say the least. He finally managed to launch the Cybertruck, and at least initially the build quality seemed better than many feared. Then NHTSA forced Tesla to recall almost every car it has made since 2012 to correct Autopilot’s errors. Many years from now, all of this would be more than enough to put Musk at the top of this list.

No. 3: Mary Barra

Barra, General Motors’ longest-serving CEO since Alfred P. Sloan retired in 1946, has won widespread respect for making tough decisions and overseeing an era of mostly prosperity for GM during her decade at the helm.

Outside of Musk, who only sells electric cars, Barra is perhaps the industry’s biggest advocate for electrifying America. Biden himself has referenced her enthusiasm, and as the EV market grows, GM is well-positioned to capitalize with products like the Chevy Blazer EV and Cadillac Lyriq. She was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in February in recognition of her influential tenure at GM and groundbreaking status as the first woman to lead an automaker.

While her plaque is already up, Barra says she has no plans to slow down. She turns 62 on Christmas Eve and has indicated she is not interested in a second act as a politician (WikiLeaks says she was considered to be Hillary Clinton’s vice president in 2016).

That said, GM faces many challenges. The Cruise Automation investment has turned into a money pit and a quagmire, and Barra has admitted he’s disappointed with GM’s EV production. The company appears to have a formidable portfolio of electric vehicles – it just doesn’t build that many.

No. 4: Jim Farley

Ford’s CEO implemented his plan to organize the Blue Oval into separate units for gasoline vehicles and electric vehicles, complete with disaggregated financial reporting. It’s creative and showed Wall Street that he was serious about taking Ford into the future. The charismatic 61-year-old Mustang fan, racing driver and podcast host has brought an energy to the company that his immediate predecessors, Jim Hackett and Mark Fields, lacked. Fields was fired as Ford’s stock price plummeted under his leadership, and Hackett, a former furniture CEO and University of Michigan athletics director, retired after a largely anonymous tenure at the helm. Farley has accomplished more than either of them, launching electric vehicles like the F-150 Lightning and the Mustang Mach-E, while pushing the Blue Oval’s stock price in the right direction.

While Biden praised Barra for GM’s EV efforts, Ford under Farley has achieved results that are just as credible. And unlike GM, Ford wisely exited the autonomous vehicle market, dumping the company’s stake in troubled self-driving company Argo AI before it filed for bankruptcy last year. Despite the support of Ford, VW and Amazon, three of the richest companies in the world, Argo went bankrupt – and Farley apparently saw it coming. The grandson of a Ford factory worker, Farley is bleeding Ford Blue, and his legacy as CEO will be defined in the years to come.

Greg Migliore is the editor-in-chief of Autoblog. He is a member of the jury of the North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year Awards and is treasurer on the board.

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