During CNBC's coverage last week of President Obama's remarks on Chrysler's bankruptcy, the camera found a downtrodden Bob Nardelli watching the president talk about how the automaker had failed. For a moment, I felt sorry for the man. Then something ran over me like a Dodge Stratus: Nardelli is an awful CEO, and he had this coming. Honestly, I have nothing personal against him, but as the poster boy for exorbitant golden parachutes, Nardelli sure is an easy target. Now that he's set to leave Chrysler after it emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (he will return to Cerberus Capital Management, which controls Chrysler, as an adviser), he will have walked away from a second iconic U.S. company after performing very poorly in the top position. Did anyone believe Nardelli was the man for the job when Cerberus installed him as the CEO of Chrysler? History hasn't been very kind to Nardelli, and it's unlikely to be revised now. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ... . "From a PR perspective, he has not handled himself well in his last two CEO positions," said Paul Nolte, director of investments of Hinsdale Associates. After a tenuous six-year run at Home Depot ( HD), Nardelli left with a severance package that totaled more than $200 million. In his defense, Nardelli didn't run Home Depot into the ground. In fact, revenue and earnings at the home improvement retailer increased annually. But over his time with the company, Nardelli collected $225 million as his salary. Combined with his severance package, Home Depot essentially paid Nardelli more than $400 million for the stock to go nowhere. Shares were essentially unchanged while rival Lowe's ( LOW) surged more than 200%, and Nardelli did very little to placate irate shareholders. Additionally, Nardelli did all he could to build up Home Depot's wholesale unit, only to see the company sell it after he left to a consortium of private-equity firms for considerably less than the asking price. Nardelli was often criticized by shareholders for expanding the supply unit at the expense of retail performance.
After Chrysler hired Nardelli, he famously cut his salary to $1 a year. Cerberus Capital, which is Chrysler's majority owner, told me Friday that Nardelli was not paid any other compensation while running the automaker. The salary cut was an important sign to the public, especially with all of the attention paid to the health of the U.S. automakers and the backlash against excessive executive compensation. But Nardelli was billed to be the man who would turn Chrysler around, and he failed to do it. "It's always a head-scratcher when you see someone with a high profile that has truly been unsuccessful in turning things around get another opportunity," said Art Hogan, chief market analyst with Jefferies. Of course, Chrysler was damaged goods before Nardelli arrived. Still, it's hard to hear Nardelli say that, after bankruptcy, it is now the "appropriate time to let others take the lead in the transformation of Chrysler with Fiat." Apparently, he was good enough to drive the automaker into bankruptcy, but he can't tow it out. Alan Mulally, Ford's ( F) current CEO, makes Nardelli's performance look even worse. After enjoying success at Boeing ( BA), Mulally took the reins at Ford at a time when market share was slipping and both losses and debt were mounting. While Nardelli enjoyed the shelter of working for a privately owned automaker, Mulally cut costs and revived the Taurus brand while facing scrutiny from shareholders. Now, Ford is essentially the strongest U.S. automaker. Even General Motors ( GM) was in a worse predicament than Chrysler, and it still hasn't had to seek court protection.
Jefferies' Hogan says that the balance between what you need to present publicly as a CEO and what you need to do privately has been upset. He argues some CEOs spend more time making public appearances than running a business. "We've clearly moved beyond the environment where celebrity CEOs work," said Hogan. "We're moving more to an environment where a CEO has a lower profile and a better finger on the pulse of the current business environment. That's what is appropriate."