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Almost …

March 10, 2009
“An automobile’s design must make an emotional connection to a potential buyer, immediately. No connection, no sale. Design is the last great differentiator in the automotive business.” –Robert A. “Maximum Bob” Lutz, outgoing vice chairman for global ...

An automobile’s design must make an emotional connection to a potential buyer, immediately. No connection, no sale. Design is the last great differentiator in the automotive business.” –Robert A. “Maximum Bob” Lutz, outgoing vice chairman for global product development at General Motors

Probably the best adjective ever applied to Bob Lutz came from Reuters upon the announcement of his impending retirement at the end of this year: “Colorful.”

Here’s one example from a speech last October on the subject of effective public relations: “I’ve been a lifelong critic of corporate communications that don’t communicate, or are too sanitized. Instead of being a weapon for putting out the truth, [communications] becomes simple risk avoidance. It focuses on making sure that no one says the wrong thing. And often, by focusing on not saying the wrong thing, you’re essentially saying nothing. By over-sanitizing everything we say, we make sure that every little bit of personality, corporate or otherwise, gets taken out.”

Here’s an even shorter bon mot: When journalists asked him for his take on global warming last year, he described it in four words: “a crock of s---."

I myself got the great fortune to interview him at a General Motor’s product preview in Salt Lake City back in 2005 and it was quite an experience, let me tell you. I asked him about how he goes about designing new vehicles and he cut me off fast. “I am NOT a designer – I COACH designers,” Lutz explained to me. His job, he strongly believed, boiled down to getting designers to acknowledge and then incorporate “real world” wants and needs into vehicles so people WANT to drive them.

“You can’t choose between low cost or high quality anymore – you must be both,” he told me. “You have to be best in class for everything – the chassis, frame, suspension, engines, and interior – yet still be priced for value.”

Yet at the end of the day, cars and trucks still need that “something extra” that only comes from a great design.

“Everybody has great powertrains and adheres to the same basic fuel economy and safety standards. Everybody has good, flexible, low hour-per-vehicle manufacturing,” Lutz said recently. “Everybody has efficient purchasing and uses the same suppliers. Everybody has roughly similar reliability and quality ratings. But you can be best in quality and if you’re worst in design, and you fail to create that emotional connection with the customer… you still won’t sell any cars or trucks.”

But now Lutz is now planning his exit from the day-to-day stage at GM and it’s a sad moment to say the least. This is a guy with a long track record at all three major U.S. automotive OEMs – Ford, Chrysler, and GM – with a lot of successes I feel, especially for GM. But it’s looking more and more likely that all that may not be enough, as GM teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s certainly not the coda to his career I think Lutz, myself, or anyone else would have expected.

And what a career! Born on February 12, 1932, in Zurich, Switzerland, his life is almost of storybook proportions. He served as a jet-attack aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1965, attaining the rank of captain, while earning a bachelor's degree in production management from the University of California-Berkeley in 1961, along with a master's degree in business administration from same school a year later.

Lutz actually began his automotive career in September 1963 at GM, where he held a variety of senior positions in Europe until December 1971. For the next three years, he served as executive vice president of sales at BMW in Munich and as a member of that company's board of management. Then he spent 12 years at Ford Motor Company, where his last position was as executive vice president of truck operations.

He then joined Chrysler for 12 years, eventually reaching the position of vice chairman after serving as president and chief operating officer, responsible for Chrysler's car and truck operations worldwide. He led all of Chrysler's automotive activities, including sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, and procurement and supply and came up with some real winners – the 300 C (below at left) being a prime example, as the low-slung, “gangster” inspired rear-wheeled sedan became an instant classic.

Lutz came to GM as vice chairman of product development on September 1, 2001 – not an auspicious month in U.S. history as we all know – after a short stint at battery-maker Exide Corp. and then in November that year became chairman of GM North America and served in that capacity until April 4, 2005, when he assumed responsibility for global product development.

Lutz’s design “coaching” is readily apparent in all of GM’s products today – from the HHR to the renewed Impala sedan, the well-received Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, and finally the coup de grace, the Chevy Malibu (below), which took “car of the year” honors in 2008. All of this for a guy well into his 70s – not too shabby, if you ask me!

Yet it almost seems too late for all of this. An outspoken critic of GM's earlier attempts to cut costs by using cheaper materials in vehicle interiors and its past failure to maintain consistent quality, Lutz really revived GM's product lineup. Yet, as Reuters noted, though his efforts are highly regarded by critics in the automotive trade press, they received a mixed reception from consumers. He championed the revolutionary Chevy Volt – an electric car equipped with a small gasoline motor – yet won’t be seeing it through its 2010 launch date.

Lutz transitions to vice chairman and senior advisor as of April 1, providing strategic input into GM’s global design and key product initiatives until his retirement at the end of 2009. Whether GM survives until his retirement, of course, is a matter of great debate right now, which makes the winding up of his legendary career all the sadder to me.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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