Auto pilots

Written by Roudra Bhattacharya | Updated: Dec 29 2013, 07:43am hrs
IT IS nearly impossible to be involved in the auto industry and not have heard of Bob Lutz. The Swiss-born, US-based car marketing genius is known as the brain behind a variety of hugely successful products on both sides of the Atlantic, including the BMW 3-series, Ford Explorer, Dodge Viper and the Chevrolet Beat. In a career spanning half a decade that began with General Motors (GM) in 1963, Lutz worked in key management positions at BMW, Ford, Chrysler and battery maker Exide, before coming back to General Motors in 2001 and finally retiring in 2010.

But there is more to the man, one of the few outspoken industry executives, who has often been a vocal critic of both the companies and the government policies. Lutz, who today works as a consultant and runs a boutique car company, VL Automotive, has also authored three books to date. His latest and the third book, Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership, is a quest to find what makes a leader most effective in his role, despite the many quirks that we all as humans possess. Each chapter is dedicated to a different leader that Lutz worked under and the learning gathered from it that helped him in his career.

Lutz starts from the beginning, from fond memories of his high school teacher in Switzerland back in 1952. Georges-Andre Chevallaz, a man who would later join politics and become the president of Switzerland, is remembered for his highly-disciplined daily rigour that he trains his students towards. A model leader in Lutzs eyes, Chevallaz stood for the highest degree of professionalism and dedication to his work, accepting nothing but the best results from his students. Tough on those he found lacking in dedication, Chevallazs style of teaching was fair yet strict. Lutz, who feels such methods are far more effective in training young adults than the gentler approach to teaching practised in schools today, maintained contact with Chevallaz till his death in 2002.

Lutz moves on to his nine-year-long stint with the US Marines Corps, and the harsh surprises that army training brings that one is never really prepared for. The next leader in his life, Staff Sergeant Donald Giusto, believed in transforming civilian turds to army men in a matter of 12 weeks. Lutz highlights how army training is essential for all and how it prepares one for whatever surprises life may throw later. From cleaning toilet bowls with bare hands, to being pushed to the brink of exhaustion and frustration, Lutz explains how such training makes men out of daisies.

The remaining chapters are about the leaders Lutz worked under in his professional career, starting with his first major role after completing his MBA and earning a living selling vacuum cleaners. Lutz joined GM under Robert Wachtler, director of forward planning for overseas operations. Wachtler, a man crude in his ways and prone to loud abuses, was easy to disregard at first, but he knew how to get the job done even if it required threatening and cajoling executives several levels senior. Lutz then moves on to Opel, GMs European operations, where he reported to Ralph Mason, a leader who loved his drink a bit too much. Despite embarrassing the company on several occasions, even Mason at times showed that stray spark of brilliance that helped Opel improve both market share and profitability.

Lutz moved on to BMW, a niche German company at the time where he took charge of marketing under CEO Eberhard Von Kuenheim. Kuenheim, born to the German aristocracy, had a polished look but was more of a street fighter who discreetly demolished his enemies. Though Lutz has a few sour memories where Kuenheim lets him down to save his own skinlike a boardroom battle to decide the now famous model naming pattern of BMWs range, he remains friends with Kuenheim till date. Even while disapproving of Kuenheims methods to maintain control, Lutz both acknowledges and is surprised by the success of the man who remained the boss at BMW for 23 yearsone of the longest serving CEOs in automotive history.

Philip Caldwell, the chairman and CEO of Ford (1980-1985) and Lutzs next boss, is remembered for odd habits. A teetotaller, Caldwell had very peculiar quirks, like bothering if the laces on his shoes are even, and obsessions with a certain soap or mineral water brand that he had to have with himself wherever he travelled. Caldwell, however, had the foresight of bringing the right products to the market and an obsession for high quality and advanced European design.

In further chapters, Lutz describes his experiences of working under Harold A Poling, Ford chairman and CEO (1990-1993), and a man so obsessed with numbers that he let it cloud his decision over all else. Then there is the famous Lee Iacocca, chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corporation (1978-1992), who had boundless energy and talent for convincing others, but was ultimately too power hungry and reluctant to let control of Chrysler pass to the next generation. Lutz then worked under Iacoccas successor Robert Eaton, who led a disastrous merger with Germanys Daimler AG, but with good intentions.

Lutz briefly mentions his stint as the CEO of battery maker Exide, where he joined in order to pull it out of a financial collapse, before taking us to his last major management position back at GM under Richard Wagoner (chairman, 2003-2009). Though credited with superior intelligence, Lutz empathises with the polite Wagoner who took charge at an unfortunate time when the company was already bleeding profusely and could not save GM from bankruptcy proceedings in 2009.

While it is felt that Lutz adopts a self-congratulatory tone in a few instances in the book, it can be forgiven on the fact that a career marketer would find it hard to resist selling himself when given a chance.

The book will certainly be a riveting read, especially for those with a keen interest of the automotive industry. It is not a traditional management strategy bookwhat works here is Lutzs natural flair of writing, peppered with anecdotes, at times harsh opinions and witty sarcasm.

It provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings and challenges of an industry that on the outside is usually associated with much glamour.