Maryann Keller, one of the first women on Wall Street to cover the auto industry and later a widely respected consultant who became a formidable critic of management at Detroit’s automakers, died on Thursday, June 16. She was 78.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Connecticut confirmed her death.
Keller, routinely the No. 1 auto analyst in Institutional Investor‘s widely watched ranking of the top stock pickers at leading brokerage houses, wielded enormous clout and influence over boardrooms and showrooms. Her books, meticulously reported with unprecedented access to company insiders, became must-reads for dealers, suppliers, journalists and anyone else who desired to go behind the scenes.
Her clarity and insight, biting at times, could move a company’s stock price in either direction with the release of a new report, or a traditional buy or sell call.
With an appreciation for comprehensive, hands-on research, well before the Internet and cellphones spawned today’s influencers, Keller was the rare celebrity analyst to get out of New York regularly and visit dealerships, parts makers and factories — domestic and overseas — to get a firsthand look at key operations across the auto industry.
Whether weighing in on what she called Tesla’s flawed retail model, the ideal number of doors on a minivan or General Motors’ prospects under new leadership as it exited bankruptcy, her candid assessments of the auto industry’s business practices, old and new, could be unsparing.
She was among the first analysts to question the wisdom and longevity of the 1998 merger between Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler, saying she couldn’t imagine two companies with more different cultures.
When Roy Brown Jr., the designer of the Ford Edsel — one of the auto industry’s biggest flops — died in 2013, Keller called the car’s styling “almost grotesque” and cited among the vehicle’s many flaws its “hundreds of pounds of unnecessary weight in bumpers.”
Roger Smith, a finance veteran who rose to become CEO of GM during the 1980s, a time of upheaval for Detroit, was a frequent target. Smith was brilliant, she said, but also lacked both the charisma and sensitivity to motivate others to see his bold vision to remake the plodding giant through to completion, or to understand when the vision is flawed.
“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,” Keller wrote about Smith in one of two of her acclaimed books.
Recognizing the auto industry’s traditional booms and busts, she routinely cautioned investors about investing in GM, Ford and Chrysler, at one point calling out the latter’s fragile balance sheet and constant struggle to secure adequate funding to design and produce new models.
“You buy them to sell them,” she told The New York Times in 1986 of Detroit 3 shares. “You don’t hold onto them to put your grandchildren through college.”