Heaven Welcomes Automotive Star, Maryann Keller
Maryann Keller Chai passed away yesterday morning. She was 78.
Born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey on New Year’s Eve in December 1943, Maryann Katula was a budding star since her beginnings. Growing up, she had an insatiable desire to learn and sought books for entertainment. She read two to three books per week —reciting entire volumes of the Canterbury Tales while still in elementary school. Eventually science became her fascination, and she was tinkering with chemistry sets by age 11. But after her grandmother complained about the ongoing stench of burning sulfur in the family’s kitchen, Maryann took her interest outside, and launching homemade rockets became her new hobby.
A strong work ethic was engrained at a young age. As soon as she reached the minimum legal age to work, 16, Maryann found her first job at a local bakery, where she would inject jelly into doughnuts. After the bakery, Maryann joined what she described as her favorite job of all time, working in a public health service helping those in need.
To pursue her childhood interests in chemicals and rockets, Maryann enrolled as a chemistry major in Rutgers University with the hope of becoming a chemical engineer. To pay for college, she took a research job testing for bacteria in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay. By her senior year, in 1965, she had her first experience with owning a car, when she purchased a used British sports car known as the Triumph TRA3. “I loved and hated cardboard door panes,” she said. After four years at Rutgers, she graduated with honors in 1966.
After college, Maryann provided market research about the chemical industry for a small Princeton-based research firm. Soon after, in 1968, she joined a well-known chemical firm, Celanese, as a marketing research associate. Then, in 1970, she received a major break when Wall Street came calling. Kidder Peabody recruited Maryann to fill an open spot for an automotive research analyst — despite her having no knowledge of the automotive industry. “When I was first assigned to autos,” she told me, “I didn’t know which car company made which nameplate,” but that didn’t stop her from becoming the first woman to cover the publicly-traded Detroit automakers.
During the beginning of her automotive career, in her mid-twenties, Maryann married Arthur Keller, a young lawyer who lived in NYC. Her marriage to Arthur was a brief but fun time in her life. Together, they enjoyed the cultural melting pot that was NYC in the early 1970s, at a time when their one-bedroom apartment on Madison Avenue cost $200 per month. She kept the Keller surname as her professional reputation began during the marriage.
Maryann spent the 1970s entrenching herself in both Detroit and Japan. She worked on Saturdays and Sundays –70 to 80 hours per week – while obtaining an MBA degree from Baruch College. She differentiated herself amongst other analysts as a result of her tenacious approach to market research. Back then, the Internet did not exist, so finding the details behind the automakers’ public financial reports was dependent on in-person conversations and interviews.
To support her research efforts, Maryann visited the peripheral companies of the automakers, like parts supplies and dealers to gain a deeper understanding. She would also seek off-the-record insights from automaker employees, simply by cold calling them or buying them lunch. But more importantly, she visited each automaker at a minimum of a monthly or quarterly basis and made a point of visiting the California offices of Toyota, Datsun (Nissan today), and Honda as much as possible.
She shared her findings with investment clients, as well as the public, via columns she wrote in Motor Trend and Christian Science Monitor. Many of her analyses were unique – not only for their direct analysis – but also because of topics. For example, in the mid-1970s, she wrote a report explaining the superior fuel economy offered by Japanese vehicles over the American’s. She cited mass inefficiencies in American cars, including the unnecessary weight caused by chrome accents and zinc parts, and suggested aluminum as an alternative. Zinc industry executives, and other automotive analysts, pillared her suggestion; but slowly over the next decade, zinc, chrome, and other unnecessary materials were removed from American vehicles as the industry sought better fuel economy.
Maryann’s persistent approach to research made her the first analyst to be recognized for predicting the rise of the Japanese automakers at a time when they had a mere 4% market share. She said her best sources of intel were American executives working for the Japanese in California, as well as dealers that were early adopters of the Japanese products. In addition to spotting that the Japanese manufactured superior quality vehicles with better fuel economy, she recognized that car buyer demographic trends, like growth in suburban and family buyers, also favored the Japanese’s growth.
Her predictions were met with criticism — from peer analysts, the Detroit Three, and dealers alike. During a speech at Tavern on the Green in Central Park, a group of Chevy dealers booed her so loudly that she was forced to end her speech and leave abruptly. But despite the criticism, she continued to warn her clients, the media, and the industry of Japan’s rise. Today, Japanese automakers have 38% market share.
During the 1970s, China started to enter the radar of international trade, and many global companies saw it as an untapped market to sell their products. To gauge China’s impact on the auto industry, Maryann contacted Walter Kissinger, the brother of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for assistance. Secretary Kissinger responded by assigning Maryann to lead a delegation of financial analysts to China. When GM executives learned of Maryann’s trip, they sent her Buick-branded swag to give away to Chinese leaders, which was the most popular GM brand in China at that time. The trip was eye-opening for Maryann and provided a glimpse into the future of China’s manufacturing capabilities.
In 1979, Maryann testified to the U.S. Congress on whether Chrysler should receive federal government bailout money. She told Congress to deny the funds and let Chrysler fail, so other American automakers could pick up the slack and become stronger. Ultimately, lawmakers gave in to political pressure and rescued the automaker. But while in Washington D.C. for her testimony, Maryann met two MIT professors that were planning a study on the automotive industry. She eventually joined them on launching MIT’s first global study on the automotive industry.
The intent of the MIT study was to examine the cost differences between American, Asian, and European automakers via a transparent and mutual setting. It was groundbreaking as it was the first time that every major automaker met in a collaborative setting to exchange information and ideas. In one example outcome of the study, American automakers faulted the U.S. labor unions as a reason for their market share losses to the Japanese. But when American executives learned that their Japanese counterparts also had union challenges, they had to shift blame elsewhere.
By the end of the 1970s, Maryann gained the most prestigious recognition in her trade when she won Institutional Investor’s Top Analyst recognition. She became the first woman to win the title — and held it for 12 years. But Wall Street wasn’t exactly welcoming to a woman in their ranks. In a 1984 interview with Tom Brokaw on the Today Show, the NBC anchor asked Maryann if Wall Street was still a “male bastion.” Maryann replied by saying that Wall Street was slowly becoming more accepting, especially in roles like research. “I don’t think your clients care if you are male or female or whatever,” she said, “as long as you give them good information and make money for them.” Brokaw then asked if a woman would lead a major bank in the next decade, to which Maryann replied, “I just don’t see too many of us in positions that we could emerge into that role.” And she was right. It wasn’t until 2020 when Jane Fraser of Citigroup broke through this barrier.
In 1984, Maryann married Jay Chai, a Korean-born, Japan-based executive who was a consultant for General Motors. And she joined a household of teenagers from Jay’s previous marriage; in order of age: Julius, Nelson, and Eleanor. Julius went on to become a restauranteur until his early passing in 2018. Nelson became a business executive and is the current CFO of Uber. And Eleanor became an educator and opened the prestigious K–12 private school, Pierpont. Maryann’s husband, Jay, remains a prominent Japanese-American executive and is credited with facilitating many Japanese investments in the American economy.
In 1989, Maryann published her first book, Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall and Struggle to Recover at General Motors. Her book outlined the mistakes that led the world’s largest automaker to its fading state in the late 1980s. It became a hit and won the prestigious Eccles Prize from Columbia University. After Rude Awakening, Maryann’s influence in the global auto industry became so prominent that GQ Magazine named her one of the 50 most influential people in the world. She later wrote a second book, Collision, which detailed the race between GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen to own the 21st century. Every automaker that was not mentioned in the book’s title, like Ford, made sure Maryann knew of their dissatisfaction. While Collision was a success, it could not eclipse the breakthrough hit of her first book.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Maryann’s career expanded. She was a regular on TV news, including CNN’s Larry King Live, Charlie Rose, and the major networks. In 1984, she joined Paine Webber as the firm’s first female Executive Vice President and then joined Furman Selz in 1986, which became ING. In addition to her job as an analyst, in 1992, she served on the National Research Council’s Committee on Fuel Economy of Automobiles and Light Trucks, commonly known as CAFE, which impacted the government’s regulation of fuel standards.
In the 1990s, Maryann became recognized as the pioneer of public ownership of dealerships after she led the first IPO of a dealership group, named Cross Country. Since the 1980s, her analyst reports touted that large dealership groups were well-suited to become public companies due to their consistent returns. The ground-breaking Cross Country IPO gave way to more public offerings of car dealership groups, including AutoNation, Lithia, and UAG (Penske). Maryann also made other contributions to auto retail, including co-authoring a well-known study for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) on the consumer benefits of the franchise system and serving on the boards of Lithia Auto Group, Sonic Automotive, AutoCanada, and DriveTime.
After retiring from Wall Street in the late nineties, Maryann briefly ran the automotive division of Priceline.com, but the dot-com crash came just months after her arrival, which forced Priceline to sever its automotive unit to focus on core areas like travel. After Priceline, Maryann resumed her automotive career as a consultant. One of Maryann’s consulting clients included Cox Automotive; her work there gave way to breakthroughs that affect used car values today. She directed the company to create a used-car value data index that could be utilized by Wall Street. This suggestion led to what is known today as the Manheim Used Vehicle Price Index.
During the last few years, Maryann’s professional time was balanced between her automotive board roles and her charity work. She amassed one of the largest collections of Navajo-woven baskets in the United States. The collection, valued in the millions, was donated to the Connecticut-based Bruce Museum where Maryann served as a trustee. She was also a trustee for the Stamford Hospital Network and a member of the executive committee. She helped steer the hospital during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and chaired the quality and clinical affairs committee, which was responsible for accrediting doctors.
When asked if she regretted not becoming a chemical engineer, Maryann explained that she didn’t. She loved Wall Street because it allowed her to form her own destiny. Her competitors were analysts at other firms, which freed her from the politics of competing with other employees while lowering the gender barrier that plagued Wall Street. And she enjoyed the freedom of being an analyst; it allowed her to join studies at MIT, publish columns, write books, and give speeches. This independence was critical to Maryann’s growth in the industry and helped her stand out amongst other analysts. And she was able to turn her interest in mixing chemicals to mixing ingredients in the kitchen. A visit to her home meant gourmet-style home-cooked meals with the freshest fruits and vegetables, with the produce grown in her backyard thanks to her custom fertilizer.
Hard work alone will not make someone a legend, so what gave way to Maryann’s success? We’ve narrowed it down to three attributes. First, she had an insatiable curiosity. Ever the student, she spent her time expanding her knowledge via reading, interviews, and research. Second, she was brilliant. She could remember the smallest details, process mosaic pieces of information, and summarize them into a manner that was easily understandable (and quotable). And finally, she was disarmingly charming, pretty, gregarious, and could convey a harsh message while still being delightful and respectful.
Maryann was a sage to the automotive industry, a pioneer in financial services, and a role model to professional women. She accomplished so much due to her perseverance, curiosity, intelligence, and charm. Maryann’s life, career, and legend can best be summed up by words from her former boss and well-known Broadway producer, Roy Furman, “She remains ever a star.”