The CEO on the biggest hot seat in the auto industry right now may not be head of one of the carmakers. It could be Cheryl Miller, who has taken over as chief of AutoNation, America’s largest new-vehicle retailer.
Sure, automaker chiefs have their own huge challenges these days. But none may be up against the kind of abruptly set expectations now faced by Miller, who suddenly was installed as CEO after the company’s surprise dismissal of the person initially picked for the role, Carl Liebert, following a stint of just four months. Miller was CFO for AutoNation for five years.
Liebert unsuccessfully faced the challenge of filling the shoes of Mike Jackson, AutoNation’s legendary leader of 20 years who stepped into the executive chairman role. Now the 47-year-old Miller has her shot at following up Jackson’s expansion of AutoNation to 360 dealerships across 16 states.
“She’s a winner,” Jackson, 70 years old, told Automotive News. “She has the confidence. She inspires confidence. She’s unflappable.”
The worlds of automotive manufacturing and retailing will be watching Miller’s performance closely, for a number of reasons. One reason is that, while AutoNation remains the nation’s undisputed leader in the traditional car-retailing business, that industry is under new pressures ranging from the slowing level of U.S. auto sales, to trouble signals in the indebtedness of American consumers that undergirds car retailing, to overall challenges to bricks-and-mortar car selling from burgeoning online platforms.
Miller has said already that her agenda includes building on AutoNation’s core sales business by growing parts and service—the most profitable aspects of car dealerships and an increasing area of emphasis by many dealers. She also wants to expand revenues from AutoNation’s new branded collision-parts line and enhance the company’s digital capabilities.
Bill Gates is AutoNation’s largest shareholder. But another reason Miller’s tenure sparks interest is that the company’s desire to accelerate its digital progress was a big reason that AutoNation went outside to hire Liebert, an executive with no automotive experience who was hired away from USAA, the financial-services company, for his expertise in logistics and digital platforms. Miller was runner-up in that succession derby, Jackson told Automotive News, although only after a handful of other high-level potential successors had left the company over the past four years.
Third, Miller already has embraced the symbolism of her ascendance as the first woman to lead a publicly traded auto-dealership group. “I think we’re doing better in [diversity] as an industry, but I would love to see us continue to attract additional women, minorities, different ages and types into our business,” she told the publication, which said that Miller was born in Puerto Rico and is Hispanic.