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Straight Shooting

Bob Lutz, president of Chrysler, tells it like it is...all the time.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

With an angry roar, the fighter bursts through the clouds. Banking steeply, it dives toward the runway, as if ready to start strafing. At the last minute, the pilot levels off, bringing the Aero L-39 in for a smooth, 120-knot landing. The engine whines shrilly as it taxis toward the hangar, the Plexiglas canopy already opening as the jet rolls to a stop. Behind his visor, the pilot coolly completes his post-flight check. Satisfied, he cuts the power, only then permitting himself a broad grin, another mission successfully completed. Climbing out of the cramped cockpit, reaching for a foothold, his well-polished boot swings past the name stenciled onto the camo-green fuselage: Capt. Robert A. Lutz, USMC (Reserve). While he may no longer be a member of the active services, Bob Lutz, 64, is more active than ever.

With his patrician manner and rugged good looks--ramrod straight posture, a thick brush of silver-white hair and a smile that twists, impishly, from the corners of his mouth--Lutz could be the Marine Reserve's poster boy, the response to (now retired) Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager. Smart, strong-willed and unabashedly opinionated, Lutz is the proverbial rugged individualist--whether piloting his Czech-made Albatros fighter-trainer, charging a tight corner on a race track or negotiating the labyrinths of the corporate boardroom as president of the nation's number three automaker. He is a survivor, with a cat-like talent to bounce back to life after every setback. All the while, Lutz is likely to be chewing on the end of a hand-rolled cigar.

While he hasn't the household name of his former boss and mentor, Lee Iacocca, Lutz also owes his share of fame and fortune to Chrysler Corp. Or perhaps, Chrysler owes it to him. In 1989, the automaker was a financial basket case. With a dated line of uninspired automobiles, Chrysler was nearing bankruptcy--again--its second brush with death in less than a decade. With Iacocca off raising money for pet projects like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Lutz was left in charge. It was the opportunity he'd been waiting for all of his life.

Lutz's philosophy was simple: "You can't be all things to all people. You have to provide the customer with a very clear-cut choice." When the first generation of new Chrysler products rolled off the drawing board and out the factory door in 1992, they won rave reviews. Suddenly, Chrysler became the darling of the media and Wall Street, which was pleased by a succession of record profits. Inside the corporation, however, Lutz got the cold shoulder. He'd scrabbled with Iacocca once too often, sealing his fate by scuttling a proposed link-up with Italy's Fiat S.p.A.--a deal that would have earned Iacocca millions in stock profits. When the 67-year-old Iacocca chose a successor, the once-anointed Lutz was pointedly passed over for an outsider, Robert J. Eaton, then head of General Motors Corp.'s successful European subsidiary, GM of Europe.

Unruffled, Lutz showed a side he'd seldom exhibited before: the ability to swallow his pride. "Being a team player, which I am, you don't sulk and quit when someone else is selected captain of the team," he declared under the glare of a dozen TV klieg lights. It may have been the best decision Lutz has ever made. If he had any doubts, he's discovered there's no shame in being number two. If anything, the president of Chrysler Corp. is having so much fun he has decided to postpone his retirement.

Son of an affluent Swiss banker, Bob Lutz traces his jet-setting ways back to his youth, when he traveled frequently with his father, Robert, on business trips to the United States. Lutz also developed an early taste for automobiles. As a three-year-old, he says, he could identify anything on the road by make and year. "I was a tiny idiot savant, saying, '1929 Ford Model A,'" Lutz recalls with a laugh.

Discipline didn't come naturally. He was, if anything, a wild child. "Seriously behind" in his classes, he was tossed out of boarding school for a series of infractions. Before resettling in the United States, his frustrated father gave the unruly son one more chance to get a high school diploma: He would pay for one more year of school if Bob, then 22, joined the Marines. It wasn't a difficult choice. As a dawdling youngster in the waning days of World War II, Lutz would sketch fighter planes in his notebooks and fantasize about dogfights over Berlin. "I kept hoping the war would last long enough so I could get up in a P-51 and be an ace."

There was a colder war waging when Lutz signed up, so the young Marine recruit had time to tackle the enemy within. He soon earned his wings and by the time he left active duty, in 1959, Lutz was well on his way to a degree from the University of California-Berkeley, which he earned in 1961. A year later he received his master's degree, with highest honors, for a thesis on the interaction between product design and product image.

The Marines taught Lutz another lesson: how to enjoy a good cigar. Stationed on a helicopter carrier off the Philippines, recalls Lutz, "I'd go up to the flying bridge with a friend and sit in the captain's chair to smoke and watch the sun go down. I learned to associate the cigar with peace, relaxation, friendship and beautiful locations."

Lutz comes from a long line of cigar smokers. His father smoked until he was 80, and there's a portrait in the family home of a great-great-grandfather cherishing a cheroot. "The arthritis in his left hand formed a natural bridge for him to hold his cigar," Lutz recalls from family lore.


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