It was supposed to serve as the showcase for the new General Motors product line-up coming to market in 1986, but Maryann Keller was anything but impressed. Sitting at the head table at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the analyst and pundit turned to GM CEO Roger Smith and suggested that the automaker was likely to lose as much as six points of market share — about as much as Toyota held in the U.S. that year.
It wasn’t the first time that Keller expressed her unabridged views in an open forum. And it wouldn’t be the last. More than two decades ahead of when the bottom would finally fall out, the Wall Street analyst warned that Detroit’s automakers were heading for collapse. Her harsh assessments, along with a natural ability to coin a quote, made Keller a star with the media and a fixture that automakers ignored at their own peril.
“Everyone in the auto industry listened to what she said, as did everyone on Wall Street,” said John McElroy, host of Autoline: Detroit and a longtime automotive journalist who frequently worked with Keller. “She was extremely influential because she called it like she saw it and didn’t mince her words.”
Keller, who had faded into semi-retirement in recent years, died June 16 at 78. But she leaves a lasting legacy as someone who correctly predicted many of the changes that helped transform the auto industry during the past four decades.
Speaking truth to power
Repeatedly named the top auto analyst by Institutional Investor, Keller’s fame rose even as GM’s star went into descent. Her attendance at the automaker’s annual luncheon at the Chicago Auto Show came at a time when it was struggling to figure out the formula to head off aggressive forays by Toyota, Nissan, Honda and other Japanese carmakers.
Smith, who served as both GM’s chairman and chief executive officer, was investing tens of billions of dollars on new factories and the products they would build. Yet each year saw its sales and market share slide. And 1986 would be no exception. As she predicted, much to Smith’s frustration, the Detroit giant went on to lose an unprecedented six points of share that year.
Keller seldom disguised her frustration with GM management, Smith in particular, writing in one of her closely read books, “He is like a cook who gathered all the ingredients for making a cake, then just tossed them in the oven randomly, thinking they would come together on their own.”
An equal opportunity critic
When Smith finally retired, three years later, Keller had little positive to say about his successors — and her dire forecasts foreshadowed its near bankruptcy in 1992. The automaker was able to hang on, however, only stumbling into Chapter 11 in 2009 as the U.S. economy went into meltdown.
Keller wasn’t exclusively focused on the foibles of GM, however. She actually began standing out early in her career, in 1979 warning then-Chrysler Corp. was running out of money and likely would go bankrupt, recalled McElroy, for whom Keller wrote a monthly column when he edited Automotive Industries magazine. “No one else on Wall Street called that. She burst onto the scene and never looked back.”
Keller later declared the “merger of equals” that formed DaimlerChrysler in 1998 dead on arrival. And she frequently complained about the troubles crippling Ford, especially its lack of fuel-efficient powertrains.
“Only themselves to blame”
She wasn’t always spot on. Keller dismissed Tesla’s plan to sell vehicles through its own distribution network, for one thing. And she didn’t back the Obama administration’s planned bailout of GM and Chrysler when they filed for bankruptcy.
“The Detroit 3 have only themselves to blame for the fact that two-thirds of the American public thinks they should be allowed to fail,” Keller wrote in a column published in trade publication Automotive News. “Having watched and written about the utter incompetence of executive management and corrupt automotive corporate and union cultures, it is a sentiment that I understand.”
Keller wasn’t always critical about the industry. She predicted early on the rise of key Japanese brands — and had a personal preference for BMW, among the Europeans.
A rare woman
Born on New Year’s Eve, December 1943, Keller grew up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a small, long-struggling community just across the bay from where she would eventually reign as one of the most powerful observers of the auto industry — and as a rare female star in the male-dominated world of stock pickers.
When Keller first warned that Chrysler could go bankrupt in 1979, said McElroy, she received a lot of pushback. But calling that crisis right, opened the doors. “She smashed through the glass ceiling on Wall Street.”
But she didn’t think her gender was as much an issue on Wall Street as in the auto industry itself.
“Have (women) reached the highest levels of their corporation?” Keller lamented in a 2020 interview with Automotive News “Apart from Mary Barra, the answer is no,” she said, referencing GM’s current top executive.
A chemist by training
Keller didn’t set out to become one of the automotive world’s most oft-quoted figures. Her first love was science and she initially enrolled in Rutgers University as a chemistry major, graduating with honors in 1966. She then landed a job providing market research about the chemical industry. But the big shift came when Keller was recruited by Kidder Peabody, the Wall Street firm hiring her to do research on the automotive market. She had fallen in love with her first car, a British Triumph TRA3, and took to the new role.
“When I was first assigned to autos,” she said in an interview with Forbes, “I didn’t know which car company made which nameplate. Yet, the job took and she became the first female auto analyst in 1972 — a job she continued for the next 17 years.
She was a voracious reader and a dogged pursuer of even the most arcane facts and figures, which helped her stand out from the more hidebound analyst crowd of that era. And she was more than happy to accommodate when journalists called, typically prepared with a pithy quote followed by lots of insightful details.
Turning to new challenges
By the time of the automotive meltdown during the Great Recession, Keller had already backed out of her daily career. But she kept close to the industry, at one point running the automotive division for Priceline.com. Just four years ago, she joined Autotech Ventures, a transportation-focused venture capital firm. There she served on the advisory board overseeing a $120 million fund focused on ground transportation startups.
But Keller also made a late-game move into charity work, among other things working with Stamford Hospital Network to help steer its response to the COVID crisis.
Her two books, “Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall and Struggle to Recover at General Motors” and “Collision: GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen and the Race to Own the 21st Century,” are still considered critical reading by those trying to understand how the auto industry got where it is today.
Keller leaves behind her second husband, Jay Chai, a Korean-American executive who served as a consultant for General Motors and has spent years working with Asian businesses investing in the U.S. She had no children of her own, but Jay brought three into their marriage, two of whom survive.
Keller died June 16. No cause of death has been released.