GM’s charm offensive
One of rather few thrills inherent in attending the Detroit Motorshow each year used to be wondering what stunt Bob Lutz would dream up to introduce a new car. Explosions were common, things falling from the sky not unusual and, through it all, you could count on the grinning countenance of Lutz himself, the most charismatic US car executive of our times and probably second only to Lee Iacocca in the influence he’s had over North American automotive product in the last two generations. Lutz is not a man to do things by halves: you and I might have our fun fix driving a sports car, Lutz flies his jet fighter. His Czech jet fighter. Not for nothing is he known as Maximum Bob.
I never conceived there might come a time when I felt sorry for Maximum Bob. But one December day in a small but crowded room at an exhibition hall in downtown Los Angeles, I did. In his career Lutz (above) has worked at board level for each of the Big Three but is now retained by General Motors, officially as its vice-president in charge of marketing and communications, but really as its product tsar. Even so, we were not expecting him to give the keynote opening address at the LA Auto Show. We were expecting GM chief Fritz Henderson, because that’s what we’d been told and that’s what it said in the programme and on signs. But what the programme and sign writers didn’t know was that, the day before he was due to give that speech, Fritz got fired.
It was one of the most inept slices of time management I’ve seen in a long time. Whatever might have gone on behind the scenes, it was not Henderson’s leadership that got GM into the worst crisis in its history because he’d only been in the job for eight months. But it was Henderson who took the painful but necessary steps to take GM into and then out of bankruptcy, restructured the business and put the company on the road to what looks like recovery. Government loans are to start being repaid ahead of schedule, sales are finally ticking up and, according to Lutz, “in anything approaching a normal market, we’d be in profit”.
There may be good reasons why Henderson went, and the LA Show was as thick with lurid speculation on this theme as it was thin on genuinely new product. It was a media tornado that would need consummate skill to manage, and I expect the board would rarely have been more grateful than to have Lutz on the strength than in this, its moment of embarrassing, self-imposed need.
So on he strolls. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, despite the fact that many would argue Lutz was part of GM’s problem rather than its solution, he is accorded a rapturous welcome. Truth is, and despite it all, Lutz is as revered a figure now as he’s always been. We’ve not seen so much of him of late: Maximum Bob is 77 now and it’s good to see him looking so well.
He cuts to the chase and says he’s not going to tell us what went on because he’s saving it up for his next book. Instead of baying for his blood, the room dissolves into laughter. He continues: “You will see me exercising enormous skill in not answering your questions.” Another gale of giggles. I don’t know another industry man who could have got away with such an approach, but Lutz didn’t pick his way through the minefield laid by his bosses, he just marched straight down the middle, preventing it blowing up in his face through strength of mind.
If a flaw in this outrageously flawed plan was exposed, it was after I’d left – I had an interview booked with a VW engineering director and it wouldn’t wait. For though Lutz has his critics, no one doubts the man loves cars like life itself, which is far from a given in this industry. As I left, the last thing I heard him say was “there is only one way out of this, and that is through the product”. So simple, so obvious really, but looking at the largely unimaginative home-grown machines on the Big Three stands, I still wonder how many of his colleagues really understand it. Until they do, there should remain a place on the top table for Maximum Bob.