Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where have you gone Maximum Bob?

Attached is a snipet from Charlie Rose's PBS interview with Bob Lutz, GM's Vice Chairman of Global Product Development.

I have been a huge fan of "Guts" Lutz for as long as I have known about him because of his focus on customers' wants and not customers' needs in building new cars, and, of course, because we are both avid pilots, we share a love of cars, and we both have proudly served as Captains in the Marines. But in this interview, I heard a number of things that felt like Bob Lutz was not himself. It is hard for me to criticize a personal hero, but these are things I would like better to understand.

1) Charlie Rose recounted the story when Rick Wagonner leaned over at an awards ceremony and asked Lutz at age 70 in a whisper where GM could find a young Bob Lutz to come over to the company and work the same magic. A good Marine would have recommended any of the 1000's of hard chargers that he had worked with at Ford, BMW, Chrysler, etc. and given them the same shot that Henry Ford II (Ford) or Eberhard von Kunheim (BMW) gave Bob Lutz early in his career, but for some reason, Lutz claimed that he knew no one like himself and so all he could recommend was the original Bob.

2) When asked if the idea of an all electric car such as the Chevy Volt came to him when he "woke up in the morning", Bob took credit claiming that "that is the way his brain works" and he further accepted that this will be the "crowning glory of his achievements". Neither of these statements are true, because Bob Lutz clearly did not come up with this idea when he woke up...he didn't come up with this idea at all. And as for his achievements, the Volt is a team effort not only within GM but outside in a network of critical suppliers whom Bob woefully neglected to recognize.

3) When asked which car he is most proud of today and which one he enjoys the most to drive in his career, he moved past all of his Chrysler and BMW accomplishments and answered the Chevy Malibu and the Chevy Corvette, respectively. Now coming from a guy who flies F-20 Tigershark jets, McDonnell-Douglas helicopters, and was the father of the Dodge Viper, I have a hard time believing that he is answering this question in anyway but a blunt corporate shill. He has earned the right to be more honest.

4) Next he claimed that he did not believe in Global Warming personally but that he believed that the Volt was the most important innovation to be introduced in decades. Is he pandering to environmental fears and laughing at those same people behind their backs? Regardless of what you believe, this seems dangerously sneid.

5) Finally, he claimed that GM was late to the fuel efficient car segment, because the company was so profitable when gas was $1.80 per gallon at the same time that its trucks were selling so well. Further he claimed that Shareholder interests would not have allowed GM to build smaller fuel efficient cars at such a time. Apparently, he forgets that some shareholders are looking for vision in corporate leadership and that reinvesting great profits in new and different ways is often looked upon very favorably. Perhaps he also forgets that Toyota is itself a public company and yet its shareholders seemed to countenance the pursuit of the barely break-even Prius when GM was making tons of profitable trucks.

In all, while I found the basic message of "please the wants of the customers to whom you need to sell and to heck with everyone else" intact, I honestly felt as if Bob Lutz has lost some of the gentlemanly guts he once displayed so easily. I hope that this is a momentary dislocation of the guts and that once the Volt his launched he will leave GM and get comfortable back in his own skin.


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