By Julie Greenwalt
July 28, 1975 12:00 PM

They came up the hard way, from working-class families who preached pride and ambition. John Riccardo, the one-time accountant who took over this month as chairman of Detroit’s recession-battered Chrysler Corp. (it lost $94 million in the first quarter of 1975), is from Little Falls, N.Y., the son of an immigrant Italian bicycle maker. Chrysler’s new president and second in command, Eugene Cafiero, is equally Latin and up from the ranks. “My parents never went beyond sixth grade,” says Cafiero, the son of a Brooklyn, N.Y. truck driver, “but when I was growing up they always told me, ‘Work hard and study and you can have a good future.’ ” (With Lee Iacocca as president of Ford, Italian-Americans now run two of the big three automakers.)

Employing the same formula, Riccardo, now 51, proved so upwardly mobile in his first 10 years with Chrysler that he was enviously nicknamed “The Rocket.” An economist by training, he prefers the decision-making role of a manager. “It comes down to this,” he explains. “Do you want to feed the gun or fire it?” Described by company insiders as a “cold-blooded cost-cutter” in the mold of his predecessor Lynn Townsend, Riccardo is an aggressive, high-pressure executive whose tongue-lashings of unhappy subordinates won him a reputation in earlier years as a “flame thrower.” When he was made company president in 1970, even his wife, Thelma, conceded he was given to explosions of temper. “Once out, though, it’s over—no grudges,” she said. “And there has never been a day when my husband hasn’t come home with a smile on his face.”

The Riccardos, married 25 years next month, have five children—three married daughters, all in their 20s, and two sons, John, 10, and Peter, 16. “There are only two things the guy cares about,” says an auto industry observer, “his family and Chrysler.” Riccardo would probably agree. “We don’t need a lot of phony things,” he says. “We have one another.” He swims and plays baseball and touch football with his sons and pumps seven miles a day on an Exercycle. “I started riding because I realized that when my youngest was in high school, I’d be close to 60.1 thought I’d still want to throw a football around, so I ought to be in shape to do it.”

Cafiero, a voluble 49-year-old production executive, is described by one associate as “liberal for an industrialist” and “something of a philosopher.” But though he is less volatile than Riccardo, company insiders do not question his toughness. “Cafiero is more the iron fist in the velvet glove,” says one. ” ‘Tell me what tools you need,’ he’ll say, ‘and I’ll give them to you. And you better deliver.’ ” Married (his wife, Nancy, is a geologist), with three children, Cafiero prides himself on his flexibility. Five years ago, as Chrysler’s group vice-president, he encouraged plant managers to relieve the monotony of the assembly line by giving workers a bigger voice in its operation. Such instructions marked him as a maverick willing to risk his career, but Cafiero has always been one to follow his instincts. “Try things,” he urges. “What works, keep. What doesn’t, start over again. But don’t be afraid to try.”

Advertisement