Born in Old Forge, Penn., on May 17, 1948. His father was an hourly employee and later a plant manager for General Electric. As a child, Nardelli was an excellent athlete but an indifferent student. He attended Western Illinois University on a football scholarship, paving highways during the summer and getting his degree in 1971. He wanted to go pro on the gridiron, but topped out at 5' 10", 195 lbs. So he pursued his MBA at night, earning the degree from the University of Louisville in 1975.
Aside from a three-year interlude, Nardelli worked for GE and its subsidiaries for the bulk of three decades. His greatest success came as head of GE Power Systems between 1995 and 1999, during which time he boosted profits by a billion dollars and made the subsidiary one of the company's most profitable divisions.
Though Nardelli's success and drive made him one of three internal candidates for CEO after Jack Welch stepped down, he was passed over for Jeffrey Immelt in 2000. Minutes later, according to FORTUNE, he received a call from Kenneth Langone, a GE board member and Home Depot director, who told Nardelli, "You probably could not feel worse right now, but you've just been hit in the ass with a golden horseshoe." He was installed as Home Depot's CEO shortly after.
His tenure at Home Depot was equal parts stormy and lucrative. While his annual compensation went as high as $38 million, the company's stock price languished and operations suffered. At a shareholder meeting in May, 2006, the board failed to show up, and Nardelli presided over a disastrous half-hour meeting during which he cut off frustrated questioners' microphones after one minute. On Jan. 2, 2007, he reached a deal to step down. When his resignation was announced, according to Business Week, some employees text-messaged each other with happy faces and exclamation points; others jubilantly high-fived. But it was Nardelli who got the last laugh, negotiating a severance package worth $210 million.
Named CEO of Chrysler in August, 2007 as Daimler, Chrysler's German parent company, sold the outfit to the private equity firm Cerberus.
Quotes from Nardelli:
"We believe this is the least costly alternative considering the depth of the economic crisis and the options we face."
(Testifying before the Senate, Dec. 3, 2008)
"There was always this rap against me being functionally proficient but not very strategic."
(FORTUNE, June 24, 2002)
"As a CEO, the toughest thing to change is what you may have put in place. So from one standpoint, I come with no emotional attachment. As a very caring person, I come with a lot of emotion for our employees. They're not numbers. They're human beings."
(Business Week, June 11, 2008)
Quotes about Nardelli:
"Though never a blazing intellect, he logged the longest hours, tackled the toughest turnarounds, and became 'the best operating executive I've ever seen,' says Jack Welch, his former boss.'"
(FORTUNE, June 24, 2002)
"Mr. Nardelli's compensation illustrates precisely what is so offensive about CEO pay: it's a rigged game. Heads I win, tails you lose."
(New York Times, May 27, 2006)
"[Before Nardelli], the approach culturally was, 'We're part of the troops like you guys and we're going into the battle with you.' But Nardelli does not look comfortable in that orange apron. His body language is more 'I am the general up on the hill with the binoculars; you guys go take on the enemy.'"
(Analyst Donald Trott, speaking to Chief Executive magazine in 2001)
"Chrysler is a bit of a mystery. CEO Robert Nardelli has been somewhat scant on details for new products other than announcing an electric-vehicle platform that has so far not impressed anybody."
(TIME, Dec. 15, 2008 issue)