Bob Lutz thank you for being No. 2
A friend once told me the great thing about not being in charge is that when the s**t hits the fan, you can take one big step to the side so none of it hits you. This is how I see Bob Lutz. He never got his chance to be the head of a major automotive manufacturer, but because he has been the perpetual sidekick, his passion for cars is uncompromising.
Whether you call it a “car guy” or “petrol head”, that is Bob Lutz. His work has not only led to enthusiast cars like the BMW 3-Series, Dodge Viper and Pontiac Solstice, but also to commercial successes such as the Ford Explorer and Chrysler PT Cruiser. The odd part is that his successes may be the reason for the enemies he’s made, and why he was passed over so many times.
Lutz is considered a maverick in the automotive world. He acts on passion as much as spread sheets. This has made his former bosses feel threatened and envious, two things that are not good in the corporate world. His fate ultimately came down to Lutz losing out on CEO jobs at places like BMW, Ford and Chrysler, not only for personality clashes, but also because of a king’s fear that the son may slay him for the throne.
The same headstrong passion that built Dodge Viper also made him politically weak. It was hard for subordinates to rally support behind Lutz because he fought hard with CEOs to get his vision across. In a way, his career was sacrificed for the sake of the cars.
Lutz’s curse of being passed over was actually a blessing for the automotive industry. Because he was never in the top spot, Lutz was never obligated to stand behind truly crappy cars. GM’s current CEO Rick Wagner gets to be associated with great cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, but he also had to stand behind the Pontiac Aztec. Instead Lutz gets to be the executive that puts the Aztec out of its misery and focuses Pontiac on better cars like the Solstice. Had Lutz been forced to compromise his “car guyness” for the sake of corporate identity, he may have muddled his legacy, and more importantly, squashed his automotive passion.
There is a great book for any car guys interested in the auto industry called Six Men Who Built the Modern Car Industry by Richard A. Johnson. Of the six men whose lives and business intertwined, Lutz is the only person who never was given the top spot at any major manufacturer. He is also the only person who would not be considered have stayed so long at company that his presence and decisions may have hurt the business.
In fact, of those six men, Lutz is the only one still working for a major automotive firm. His current position as Vice Chairman of General Motors perfect. GM’s Chairman and CEO Wagner hired Lutz to revolutionize the maker’s brands. Wagner recognizes Lutz’s ability to know what the customer wants. He is still not in the top spot, but finally his passion is not a threat.
My only real fear is time. I can only hope Lutz sees the current economic climate and product changes at General Motors as an opportunity and not a burden. Lutz is 76 years old, and while he’s not slowing down, his legacy is already written. He doesn’t need another home run car, but like any good car guy, he desires it.