What your CEO drives says a lot

Cars often are big attention grabbers. That's especially true when it comes to what the CEO drives.

Wal-Mart wmtfounder Sam Walton famously drove a pickup. Warren Buffett, worth $42 billion, drove a silver 2001 Lincoln Town Car with Nebraska plates THRIFTY until he auctioned it for charity on eBay last year for $73,200. When Alan Mulally moved from Boeing to be CEO of Ford Motor flast year he caught flak for calling his Lexus the finest car in the world just when Ford was introducing him as its new leader. Now, he "rotates through an array" of Ford vehicles, Ford spokesman Mike Moran says.

How the boss gets to work might seem a relatively innocuous thing. But people pay close attention to what their CEO drives. Only 10% of nearly 3,000 people asked didn't know what their chief drives, according to a survey by TheLadders.com, a job-search site for those making $100,000-plus. While that might not represent the typical employee, it shows that there is a keen interest in what kind of wheels the person at the helm of the company has.

A car can say a lot about the person in the corner office. "Of all the products in the world, cars are the most reliable representation of an individual's personality," says Golden Gate University psychology chair Kit Yarrow.

What CEOs drive offers a look into their personal engine blocks. Some drive hybrids to be green. Others favor older cars to show they can milk the most from available resources. Then, there are those who want expensive and fast because they're at the top and won't settle for less.

BMW was the most popular make driven by the C-level executives on the survey TheLadders.com conducted for USA TODAY. Yet BMWs accounted for only 13% of the total, followed by Ford at 7% and Lexus at 5%. A separate USA TODAY survey of 90 CEOs found 13% drive a BMW, 12% a Mercedes and 10% a Toyota.

If cars reflect personality, the variety suggests that CEOs are as assorted as Galápagos Islands species. There are those like Pace Micro Technology's pcmxfNeil Gaydon, who drives a $100,000 Porsche because, "I'm obsessed with performance, speed and design, the traits that I apply to my responsibilities."

There are others like Dixon Thayer, an apparent throwback to the late Sam Walton. Thayer, CEO of health care facilities operator I-trax dmx, tools around in an '86 F-250 pickup that may be worth $2,000, but only because he takes such meticulous care of it. "Early in my career I learned to maintain plant and equipment," he says. He refuses to trade in the truck, and hopes that reinforces to his 2,000 employees in 31 states his commitment to frugal resource management.

CEOs aren't unique in having cars that reveal their personalities. For most people, cars represent their values, or those they hope to portray. But it's especially true for those who can afford any car, Yarrow says.

"A Cadillac for a billionaire does say something different than a Cadillac for the pizza delivery guy," says Adam Selig, CEO of brand management company Visible Technologies, who drives an '04 Mercedes CLK.

Even the color is important, Yarrow says. Red for those who like to be noticed, black as a symbol of luxury. "Practical, reliable, fast, exciting, agile, elegant, sporty. There is no product that's more of an extension of our mind and body than a car," she says.

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