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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

(continued from page 2)

To Lutz, empowerment has become more than just a catchy buzzword; he believes that while the traditional, authoritarian leader isn't the answer, neither is the new-age team manager, making all decisions by consensus. "A truly effective leader is one who blends both. It's a really delicate mix," he says. "An effective leader is able to inspire people with a clear vision, an image of what the results will be and motivate them by describing what the rewards will be. At my best, I exhibit some of those traits. But sometimes I fall off the wagon on one side or the other."

Former Chrysler vice chairman Steve Miller gives Lutz plenty of credit for his role in helping to change the company, but "sometimes his idea about teamwork is you get on his team," Miller once told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Lutz himself admits he can be a difficult man to work for--or with. When Chrysler adopted a more casual dress code, a divisional general manager showed up at a weekly meeting in a polo shirt and slacks. After listening to Lutz's backhanded compliments, the executive wisely opted to return the next week in suit and tie. When a slew of Chrysler employees gathered for the launch of the stubby and oafishly ornate Chrysler Imperial, Lutz brought the celebration to a halt by declaring: "Take a good look at that car. We will never do a car like that again."

Lutz's powerful presence makes him a popular attraction on the press and lecture circuits. There was no way anyone could miss the "smashing" debut of the Jeep Grand Cherokee at the 1992 Detroit auto show--not when Lutz punched it through a huge plate glass window at the Cobo Hall convention center. During the rollout of the Chrysler Neon at the '93 Frankfurt International Auto Show, Lutz adroitly handled questions from European journalists, switching in mid-thought from English to French to German to Italian.

Last August, Lutz was the featured speaker at the exclusive Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, perhaps the world's most elegant classic car rally. Stragglers were still nibbling on sushi and lamb chops. More wine had been brought in from the industrial-sized chillers. The band was ready to play. But first Lutz had a few words to say.

Everyone expected some tales about classic cars he's owned and loved, and of course, a few comments about Chrysler, the evening's sponsor. But Lutz had something more cerebral in mind. He wanted to talk about "right-brain thinking," the side of the brain devoted to creativity. "A lot of people think the car business is just technology, an accumulation of assembly plants and money. It's all those things, but it's fundamentally a lot like the movie business. You must have the creativity, people who passionately love automobiles. And I think we have a corner on the market."

Chrysler has certainly shown its creative side with products like the Dodge Viper. Deftly modeled after the legendary Shelby Cobra, this two-seat roadster made its debut as a concept car at the 1989 Detroit auto show, triggering a flood of mail--and checks. "People ask us what made us do the Viper. Nothing! We just thought it up," Lutz says, beaming. The Viper went into limited production in fall 1991. With production restricted to a few thousand hotly sought vehicles per year, the Viper will never make much money for Chrysler, but "that doesn't really matter," emphasizes Lutz, who personally conducted much of the initial road testing. "You can't measure the impact in terms of the money you've made. If you consider what it's done in terms of image, prestige and morale, the car is priceless." Early next year, Chrysler hopes to do it again when it begins building the Plymouth Prowler, the first-ever production-line hot rod.

Odds are, Lutz will drive the first one off the assembly line. At 64, you might expect him to be slowing down a bit, but you'd be wrong. Even when he's not flying across the country on one of Chrysler's corporate jets--a rare luxury that allows him to savor a cigar in the air--he's bolting from his office in the aging suburb of Highland Park to the new Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills. It's a 30-mile drive, and so far, Lutz holds the "course" record, 20 minutes door-to-door. Frequently, Chrysler will schedule track time during a new-car press preview, and Lutz will seldom turn down the opportunity to race an auto writer. He usually wins.

He does have a personal life, though not as much of one as he'd like, but it helps that his wife, Denise, has given up her day job as a national advertising sales representative and can now travel with him. Tall, striking and smart, "she knows what it's like to work in a corporation. She's a wonderful corporate wife because she likes the interaction," says Lutz. It doesn't hurt that she's also a pilot. One of her most vivid memories is of a "shopping" trip to Prague with her husband to check out his new Czech jet. The factory test pilots gave Denise a ride in the jump seat--a fast pass over the city at 500 miles per hour.

Lutz's home is conveniently located within minutes of two airports. He keeps his four-seat McDonnell-Douglas MD500 helicopter in Ann Arbor, while the Czech Albatros is based at Ypsilanti's Willow Run Airport, which has the advantage of an extra-long runway. There's a certain irony to this. On the edge of the tarmac is an old assembly plant where B-24 Liberator bombers were built during the Second World War. Lutz has nothing but compliments for his relic of the Cold War, which he picked up for a meager $200,000. (It took another $20,000 to retrofit the Aero L-39 with American-style instrumentation.) Lutz spends about 10 hours a month flying his fleet, less if he is on vacation with Denise or his four grown daughters.

Since this interview, Lutz's flying in his Albatros has placed him in some unexpectedly exciting situations. In late February, he was cruising near Willow Run Airport when he heard a "mayday" call on the air traffic radio. Miles away, a young student pilot's engine had stalled, and he needed to land quickly. With no airport nearby, Lutz authorized the pilot to land his plane on the test track at the Chrysler Proving Grounds a few miles away. Within days, Lutz's quick thinking made headlines as far as his native Switzerland. Characteristically, he downplayed his role.

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