Fighter jet–flying, horsepower-hungry Bob Lutz believes global warming is “a crock of shit,” yet GM’s vice-chairman is the driving force behind the Chevy Volt, an
innovative electric car that calls to mind the company’s glory days of engineering ingenuity. And it still might not be enough to save GM.
In a remarkable 45-year career in the auto business, Lutz rose to high positions at BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and now GM, earning a reputation as a firebrand with a talent for reviving ailing companies. “Bob’s a true enthusiast,” says Stewart Reed, head of Stewart Reed Design in Pasadena and a GM collaborator. “He loves technology. He understands it.”
For all his prowess, Lutz never attained the industry’s crowning achievement: chief executive officer of a major manufacturer. In fact, eight years ago he was further away from that seat than ever before, working out of a windowless office in the Ann Arbor headquarters of the Exide Corporation, a car battery maker. He had left his previous job as vice-chairman at Chrysler in 1998, soon after Daimler-Benz bought the company; he took the CEO gig at Exide because, really, no carmaker wanted him. He had a luxury lifestyle to keep up, including a blond wife 19 years his junior who loved horses. It kept him busy.
Then, in late 2001, GM boss Rick Wagoner dropped by. A finance specialist who had been running GM for more than a year, Wagoner was off to a poor start. He had just unveiled the Pontiac Aztek, an SUV-lite with a pop-out tent and pitiable ugliness built in. The auto press laughed, and the car languished on lots. Wagoner needed a leader who lived for product development, not bottom lines. People told him, “You need somebody like Bob Lutz.”
Lutz immodestly recalls the meeting this way: “Rick said, ‘Who’s the equivalent of you, but 50 years old?’ I said, ‘Gosh, he’s probably out there, but I don’t know.’ I said it would be tough to find someone that fascinated with cars but with my academic credentials and broad level of experience. Someone bicultural, in the sense of having worked in Europe for almost 20 years, and who’s equally at home in the European and American parts of the business.
“Rick hemmed and hawed for a long time and was finally able to speak the words, ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider coming to work for us full time?’ I said, ‘Sure I would.’ ”
Lutz was back home. “I was not happy being out of the industry. The car business is the most interesting business there is. It combines high tech, high levels of capital, and more consumer psychology than any other business.”
At one of his first GM meetings, Lutz was greeted with a vivid graphic display of the corporation’s managerial incompetence. “They had this matrix on a big screen with things the company should be doing,” he says. Hidden among the normal carmaker concerns — reduce costs, improve advertising effectiveness — sat one small square that read DEVELOP EXCELLENT PRODUCTS.
“I said, ‘You can have the other 50 cells, but one has got to be at the center, and it’s ‘product excellence,’ ’’ recalls Lutz. “The rest are tiny things, like yellow petals around a sunflower. If you don’t have the car, nothing else matters.”