Perhaps, Gaynor says, there are other reasons employees notice what he drives. "For years I parked at whatever spot was open," he says. "A couple of years ago we redid the parking lot, and some of my employees told me that I should have a reserved space." Now, everyone now knows if he is at work, or away.
Three years ago Profit magazine named Debbie McGrath one of Canada's most successful female entrepreneurs. Yet the CEO of HR.com, which provides human resources information, drives a '93 Oldsmobile Silhouette, a minivan that got poor reviews, did not sell well, and was discontinued. McGrath says it doesn't embarrass her but might embarrass her kids.
There were only five women among the 90 who responded to USA TODAY's survey, too few to draw conclusions. But indications are that the whole CEO car thing is largely about boys and their toys. None of the women responded like Phil Libin, CEO of Sunnyvale, Calif., technology company EverNote, who remembers riding with his father in a '77 Malibu Classic with a dashboard that seemed to "stretch for miles" with blank holes where the cool gadgets should have been.
He describes his father as a car minimalist who is still a bit upset that cars no longer come with manual windows. Libin, on the other hand, says he grew up to be incapable of passing up accessories, and he shops for cars primarily based on the number of "buttons, knobs and blinking lights on the dashboard."
Lovers of bells and whistles
Libin is among the 13% of the 90 CEOs whose responded to USA TODAY who drive a hybrid. He says his Lexus GS450 is like "driving a giant Bluetooth headset." Sticker price: $55,000, plus 15 grand for the bells and whistles. Sure, it's the politically correct car for the Silicon Valley, but, "Hybrid-ness means several extra screens of status indicators," Libin says.
Tulsa isn't the Silicon Valley, and it might seem contradictory to run a large trucking company and drive a hybrid. Bob Peterson, president of Melton Truck Lines, says his Camry is not as "manly" as the 15-mpg GMC Yukon Denali SUV he traded in, but he has wearied of sending money to oil producers Venezuela and Iran.
Bert Hancock, owner of Robert Hancock property management, says if he drove a black Hummer his employees would see him as a "pompous jerk." So he drives a Toyota Prius. It's a small act of rebellion in the Omaha heartland, and he says he's heard the jokes from those who pretend the Prius is a solar car, not a hybrid, and question how does it run on cloudy days. "But this is Warren Buffett country, where people are suspicious of those with flashy jewelry and big cars."
Among CEOs who spent more than $100,000: Raul Fernandez, CEO of ObjectVideo and co-owner of NBA and NFL teams in Washington, D.C. He drives a $111,000 '07 Maserati Quattroporte. He may trade it in because he has three young kids in safety seats.
Real estate developer Donahue Peebles primarily drives an '06 Mercedes-Benz CL550 probably worth slightly less than $100,000 new, but he also owns an '06 McLaren SLR, an '04 Ferrari 360 Spider, a second Mercedes, an '06 Chrysler 300 SRT8 and an '06 Jeep Commander. Supercharged, of course.
What does it all reveal? "As you can see, I'm a car collector," he says, and also "that I prefer understated elegance." Rolls-Royce loaned him a Phantom ($300,000-plus) to drive for two weeks. "It was far too flashy for me, even living in Miami," Peebles says.
However, his McLaren sells for $455,000 and is "definitely a show stopper" with gull-wing doors. He says the black interior tones it down and makes it more elegant. "However, many people say it looks like the Batmobile, so I guess it is not understated."