NOT SINCE THE DAYS OF JOHN DELOREAN HAS General Motors seen such excitement over the possibility of a charismatic leader. Of course Delorean's persona and personal lifestyle ultimately destroyed any possibility of him leading an institution such as GM.
Now there's another “car guy” in the upper echelons of GM — Bob Lutz, the new chairman of North American operations. GM CEO Richard Wagoner, in a gutsy move, recruited Lutz, who has achieved legendary status after holding executive posts at Ford and Chrysler during a 39-year career in the auto industry.
Lutz displays many of the qualities that General Motors has sorely lacked in the highly competitive marketplace that places such a premium on style. He has a sense of style, a strong will and a keen understanding of the industry.
In recent years, General Motors has picked some questionable executives with no auto experience.
One such blunder was selecting Ron Zarella as president of GM-North America. He came from Bausch and Lomb, a maker of contact lenses. He's now back there as CEO. During his years as an auto executive, Zarella was in charge of recapturing GM's lost market share. Instead, much of the time was wasted healing rifts between GM and its dealers.
During my half-century as a GM dealer, I came to realize that selling cars and trucks and expanding market share are not the primary functions of GM's top management. Rather their primary goal is profitability, moving billions of dollars in the world's financial markets.
It's no accident that GMAC ranks as the highest profit center in GM's corporate hierarchy. During the infamous GM market share slide, the question was how GM maintained profits. GMAC did it. It almost reaches a point where you're wasting time and money selling cars and trucks, rather than doing financing deal.
True, there have been automobile visionaries who have led GM in the past. The problem was the powerful money guys emasculated them. Leaders like Pete Estes and Ed Cole lacked the type of drive necessary to compete with the ego-filled Roger Smith-types whose lame legacies persist to this day.
Lutz's assignment, long overdue, is to put some spark in GM product design. A lot of people say he's the guy for the job.
Industry commentator Jerry Flint, never one to go easy on GM, wrote an article headlined, “For General Motors, Lutz = Gutz.” That's a take-off on Lutz' book, “Lutz on Guts.”
His new job is to get General Motors back on track in today's design-conscious marketplace. Lutz says too many contemporary vehicle designs seem “to come from the trash compactor school of design.”
Robert Eaton, Lutz's old boss at Chrysler, says, “Bob Lutz was singly the best and most well-rounded automotive executive this industry has ever seen. His vision, product knowledge, and enthusiasm for truly great cars and trucks have played a key role…”
Though his college degree is in marketing, many people mistook Lutz as an engineer “because of his knowledge and understanding of what makes cars and trucks tick, and ultimately sell,” says Eaton. “He also knew the value of a dollar and of building an efficient product development structure.”
To me, Bob Lutz is perfect for GM.
My fellow GM dealers and I have watched the loss in Cadillac sales, the wasted dollars in Saturn and the decline of one-time sales champion Chevrolet.
I welcome a controversial “car guy” like Lutz. He has the guts to counteract the money wizards who controlled GM for too long.
Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.