Ford signage is displayed outside of a dealership as the...

Ford signage is displayed outside of a dealership as the General Motors headquarters building stands in the distance in Detroit. (April 1, 2013) Credit: Bloomberg News

As the top lieutenant to Renault SA Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn, Carlos Tavares admits he’s unlikely to succeed his boss, who’s just 59. So he wants to run General Motors Co. or Ford Motor Co. instead.

“We have a big leader and he is here to stay,” said Tavares, who turns 55 today. “Anyone who is passionate about the auto industry comes to a conclusion that there is a point where you have the energy and appetite for a No. 1 position.”

Renault’s chief operating officer is hardly alone in his maneuvering for the top job at an American carmaker as GM boss Dan Akerson, 64, and Ford CEO Alan Mulally, 68, may retire soon. The U.S. auto industry is roaring back, fueling the careers of executives who engineered Ford’s restructuring or helped GM and Chrysler Group LLC shake off the vestiges of a government-backed bankruptcy.

The top of the industry is filled with “extremely bright, extremely ambitious people,” said Richard Kolpasky, a managing director at recruiter Boyden Global Executive Search. “There’s only one CEO chair when the music stops. The majority of people at that level have the desire to be No. 1.”

Ford in October promoted Mark Fields, 52, to chief operating officer, making him a leading candidate to succeed Mulally. At the same time, the company said Mulally will stay at least through 2014.

Taken Seriously

“Ford Motor Co. takes succession planning very seriously, and we have succession plans in place for each of our key leadership positions,” said Ray Day, a spokesman. “Our preference always is to develop talent internally, and we are fortunate to have a strong list of internal candidates for each of our senior leadership positions. We also, of course, survey the external environment for potential candidates as a regular course of action. For obvious competitive reasons, we do not discuss our succession plans externally.”

At GM, at least four executives, including North America President Mark Reuss, 49, and Mary Barra, 51, head of global product development, have been mentioned as CEO contenders. GM in April said it had restructured Akerson’s pay to reflect the possibility he’ll retire within three years.

GM had no comment, said Greg Martin, a spokesman.

Best Chance

Tavares hasn’t talked to Ford or GM about future CEO openings, he said in an interview. But he said his best chance to run an automaker is in the U.S.

“With over 14 years of stable and consistent leadership, the Renault-Nissan Alliance is well-positioned for the future,” Simon Sproule, head of communications for the Renault-Nissan alliance, said in an e-mail. “Any remarks by individuals on executive management strategy are their own personal opinions and not for any further comment.”

Under Tavares, Renault reported unexpected growth in first- half profit as labor-cost reductions and higher vehicle prices more than offset an industry-wide slump in European deliveries.

When Tavares oversaw North America for Nissan Motor Co., 43 percent owned by Renault, he helped the company earn 209 billion yen ($2.2 billion) in the region in the year ended March 2010, versus a 46.7 billion yen loss in 2009. During the downturn, he retained experienced factory hands by persuading them to work four days a week instead of five, with a 20 percent pay cut.

“My experience would be good for any car company,” Tavares said. “Why not GM? I would be honored to lead a company like GM.”

Fighter Pilot

Among the best-known players of musical chairs in the auto industry is Bob Lutz, a cigar-chomping ex-Marine fighter pilot turned auto-design guru. Lutz started at GM in the 1960s, left for BMW in the early 1970s, then held jobs at Ford and Chrysler.

Lutz, now 81, retired from Chrysler in 1998 shortly after its merger with Daimler AG. He rejoined GM in 2001 to help lead a product revival there until retiring again in 2010.

Lutz’s moves were spurred by “frustration, coupled with a better opportunity,” he said in an interview. “That’s the magic ingredient.”

Ford arguably lost its spot as the world’s largest automaker nine decades ago because “Big Bill” Knudsen left Ford in 1920 for a job revamping Chevrolet, said John Wolkonowicz, an automotive historian and a former Ford product planner. By 1927, Chevrolet was the biggest auto brand and Ford was third, with Chrysler No. 2.

Moving Up

Job-hopping “is a big part of the industry,” Wolkonowicz said. “People are trying to move up in the world.”

Tavares says looking for a shot at a top spot elsewhere isn’t disloyal. Instead, he said, it’s a reflection of ambition and concern that if Ghosn retires when Tavares is 60, it will be too late for him. The Portuguese executive, who joined Renault 31 years ago as a test-driving engineer, has a background in product development.

“GM may have other candidates who are good and if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK,” he said. “I would consider other companies, but the Detroit companies have succession coming.”

One of the obstacles for junior executives in today’s scramble is that the CEOs at major automakers are all doing a pretty good job, said Charles Tribbett, co-leader of the CEO search practice at recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. 

Nonetheless, many of their underlings also have the ability — and desire — to run a company, he said.

“They are all very talented and the longer you wait, the harder they are to retain,” Tribbett said. “You have to be pretty transparent at the board level in terms of a succession plan. When it’s vague, you run the risk of losing executives.”

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