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He’s Baaack! Bob Lutz Returns to GM as Advisor
Old soldiers don’t die, and in the case of Capt. Robert A. Lutz, USMC-Ret., they don’t even fade away.
“Maximum Bob,” as many have come to call him, will be rejoining General Motors as a part-time consultant and those who know him say that despite his 79 years of age, the outspoken executive is planning on a long stay.
Until early in 2010 GM’s vice chairman and “car czar,” Lutz has spent more than 40 years in the auto industry working with a whos-who of automakers, the list including not only GM but Ford, Chrysler and BMW. He also had a brief stint as chairman of battery maker Exide and, after being nudged into a semi-retirement by former GM Chairman Ed Whitacre, Lutz has served on a variety of boards, including British automaker Lotus, while also penning his second book, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business.”
In a terse release, GM noted, “Lutz will be available to executives on a part-time consultancy basis effective immediately. He brings a wealth of experience built over the course of more than 40 years in the industry, including two stints at GM.”
The first began in 1963, shortly after he left the Marine Corps., where he served as a pilot – beginning a life-long addition to flying that he nourishes today with a small personal fleet of jets and helicopters.
Bob Lutz with his father's Aston Martin DB2 Vantage at the Eyes on Design show earlier this summer.
In the years that followed, Lutz worked his way through the industry, spending three years at BMW, a period he says was among the most influential in his outlook on the automotive world. Significantly, he served as global sales and marketing chief. While he is traditionally pegged as the archetypal “car guy,” – and likes to joke “I was an idiot savant at three, able to identify any car that drove by” – Lutz’s background is actually on the marketing side.
He served as a senior executive with Ford from 1974 to 1986, rising to Chairman of Ford of Europe before unexpectedly being called back to the U.S. and replanted as head of the carmaker’s truck operations.
That led him to jump ship again in 1986, this time for Chrysler, where he rose to Vice Chairman and was long seen as the likely successor to long-time Chairman Lee Iacocca. But the two men frequently clashed, Lutz effectively halting a planned merger Iacocca had engineered, ironically, with Italy’s Fiat, nearly two decades before Chrysler and Fiat would decide again to join forces.
Lutz after unveiling the striking Cadillac Sixteen concept car at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show.
Never wont to speak his mind, Lutz may have ended his chances to run Chrysler when he responded to a question about the possibility of finding a merger partner – six months after the Fiat deal collapsed. “You can’t find a bridegroom when the bride is on her deathbed,” he told this reporter.
Nonetheless, when Chrysler brought in former GM exec Bob Eaton as the surprise replacement for Iacocca, Lutz stayed on, insisting you don’t quit the team “just because you’re not chosen the quarterback.” He remained with the automaker until it completed its ultimately failed “merger of equals” with Germany’s Daimler AG in 1998.
Anxious to prove he could run a company on his own, Lutz briefly tried his hand at Exide but resigned in May 2002. By then he had already accepted an unexpected offer from former GM Chairman Rick Wagoner who was desperate to try to revive the company’s floundering product development program.
Even as the automaker ultimately slid into bankruptcy, in May 2009, critics agreed that Lutz had done a surprisingly solid job of turning things around – products developed under his oversight winning a variety of critical awards, including the current-generation Chevrolet Malibu, named North American Car of the Year four years ago. But overloaded with debt and facing a management system that had run amok, GM ultimately was forced to file for Chapter 11, surviving only because of a $50 billion federal bailout.
Bob Lutz was a major force behind the development of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in.
Lutz’s blunt style – and his worldly manner, speaking a half-dozen languages fluently – didn’t fly well with former ATT boss and post-bankruptcy GM Chairman “Big Ed” Whitacre, who effectively forced Lutz out of the company.
Since then, the Swiss-born former Marine has remained active, consulting, serving on a variety of boards and spending much of the summer touring to promote his latest book.
In fact, Lutz had hoped to rejoin GM sooner, confiding to TheDetroitBureau.com last February that a proposed consulting agreement fell apart when it was revealed in the media ahead of a formal announcement.
"Why stop?" asked the 77-year-old Bob Lutz as he signed an extension of his contract before unexpectedly being forced into retirement.
Exactly what he will be responsible for in his new role remains to be seen. His initial replacement as global product chief, Tom Stephens, was later reassigned the new GM corporate technology chief. Currently, Mary Barra serves as product czar, the first woman to do so at a major automaker. It is expected she will count on the septuagenarian’s advice in that job.
While Lutz has a minor hearing problem, he attributes that to too many years racing – as Seniore Bigone, a pun on his large physique – and flying, rather than his age. The executive’s ramrod posture and full head of silver-white hair belie the fact he will turn 80 next February 12.
How long can he continue? A younger brother has already retired as a professor of economics. But a close friend of the auto legend says that he is driven to match the achievements of his father, a well-known Swiss banker, who only retired at the age of 94 – six months before he died.
Few would be surprised to see Maximum Bob offering his observations to whomever the GM chairman might be two decades from now.