BOB LUTZ: CAR GUYS vs BEAN COUNTERS
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Published on Sun, Aug 14, 2011
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
LA CAR BOOK REVIEW Former Vice Chairman Of General Motors BOB LUTZ: CAR GUYS vs BEAN COUNTERS The Battle For The Soul Of American Business USA $26.95 Canada $31.00 241 Pages + 16 pages of B/W and Color Photos from the GM archives Portfolio/Penguin 2011 Printed in the United States of America Review By Doug Stokes To many of us working in various stages of the car business, Bob Lutz had long represented almost the last of an iconoclastic strain of automobile executives who were celebrated far and wide as people who actually cared about the product (automobiles and trucks) as usable, exciting, desirable, fun, items rather than cold, hard “units”. I always saw this guy as a forward-thinking throwback to the days when accessibility was Job #1 for GM executives … Truth be told, the man even looked the part.
For all the bluster, wars, battles, skirmishes, massacres, intrigue, and hard-core politics that we subsequently read about beyond the frontispiece, Lutz's dedication really fires this important book off a weak and whiney equivocation: "This book is dedicated to the hardworking men and women, at all levels, hourly and salaried, in the domestic U.S. automobile industry. The problems, mostly, were not your fault!" That "mostly" is where we came, and "mostly" here sets the stage for a detailed, highly personal telling of the rock-ribbed and ragged course of a mighty American company in the throes of great change and almost overwhelming chagrin. Bob Lutz always seemed to really try to be available to us. This guy talked our language. He made few bones about what he was thinking and what he wanted to see done. He wrote a best-selling book called "Guts" and follows with this new book which widely expands many of his personal management ideas and ideals learned in the car wars to all of American business. This story really begins not all that long ago in 2001, while Lutz was in semi-exile as the CEO of Exide Technologies (taking over the loose reins of that battery company after most of Exide's top management had been led off in shackles for what he calls, “ … a veritable Chinese restaurant menu of state, local, and federal felonies.”). As it went, and even under the above reservations, Exide was not a place that even came close to challenging his management strengths and abilities. And so, we hear Lutz's personal narrative of how GM’s president/CEO Rick Wagoner's drove up to the Exide offices in Ann Arbor, stepped out of his limo and, within a page and a half, offered the then 71 year-old “former Marine Corps pilot” a high executive position that seemed to fit his M.O. perfectly: top traffic cop, corporate conscience and interface between the domos, the dreamers, the doers, and the sellers of General Motors machines.* What ensues is a rolling good story based on insider information (his own, of course), and featuring intuition, chutzpah, persuasion, personality, and what many outside the business would recognize as something closely resembling common sense. This is as hot a tell-all (at least for us car people) as any of the searing insider books about the tobacco, atomic, or meat industries. Lutz, “Maximum Bob” as he was known (not to his face as far as I know, but certainly to his liking) is the writer, and it actually sounds like him speaking. I'm told that there is a books-on-tape version (with BL saying the words) but that might be a little too much.
Don't expect to hear very much about his work at Chrysler. In my naivety, I had thought that when "the Germans" went into business with Chrysler, that the German-speaking, semi-European, Aryan poster boy Lutz would have been designated "Fuehrer for Life" about five minutes in. Instead, he was out in only slightly more time than that. And then, a bit further down the line at GM, and in some strange conjunction of the planets, Lutz was one of the GM executives who suggested that his company buy the ailing Chrysler, which could have been simply for revenge (thought that's not even hinted at in the book). Luckily for Lutz, that rather bold plan went south fast when Cerberus barked in with a bigger pile of green. If you’re reading this on the LA Car website, you already know that General Motors went into Chapter 11, but you may not really understand how that iceberg and that ship got on such a damned collision course in the first place. Fear not because you will be told the tangled tale of that cruise and the sort of maelstrom that hit GM just at the worst possible time in just the worst possible place. (Just a note here: the crew of the Minnow have nothing on battleship GM.) It’s very hard NOT to like Bob Lutz. His candor is almost always charming but, scattered very deliberately throughout this book, are a number of traces of what sounds like rank bitterness. The look back over his shoulder is 20/10 if not better, and the (most likely all true) “See, I told you so" moments are plentiful, each more sobering than the former. There are plenty of recriminations, and many more explanations of what happened, who to blame (in many cases the American motoring press), and what could have been done to avoid it (“it” being the ever- ignominious Chapter 11). All that and more, in one of our very favorite automotive guys since Chevrolet's Jim Perkins left the scene. It was quite interesting to me to see Lutz, the unabashed darling of all automotive media blame that same ink-stained lot for just about everything that went awry at GM as well as for everything that went right for Toyota. In this book, Lutz lays heavily into Toyota for: "the 2009 – 2010 period when ten million Toyotas were recalled for unintended acceleration and failing brakes," which were almost unanimously found to be cases of pedal misapplication(s) augmented and abetted by slimy lawyers, avaricious car owners, and a 24-hour press cycle that seemed to salivate lustily on cue over every new case of Toyota’s misdiagnosed and wildly-misrepresented "problems". Oh, and just to prove that he’s a real car guy (red-blooded and all) Lutz takes on the “myth” of climate change (aka “global warming”) as some sort of made up "boogieman" that will cause us all to revert to horse-drawn surreys (with or without any fringe on top). In that segment/sentiment, he sounds the least convincing/convinced of an chapter in the book. Seemingly needing to hew to the industrialist/robber baron side of the gospel, if only for old time's sake. In point of fact, the motoring media WAS hard on GM and its products for one very good reason. They honestly did not compare favorably with what many the off-shore companies were producing at the time. Pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar, job-for-job, those comparisons were made by the media and the chips were allowed to fall as they would. Along the way, Lutz stops a couple of times to lacerate Caligula himself, Ron Zarrella, one of the chief dagger-plungers into the heart of GM, that damn dark prince of marketing-by-metrics. Lutz blows this guy (who almost single-handedly frog-marched GM into the morass of “Brand Management”) off with great skill and the indictment that Zarrella and swung that horrific wrecking ball at GM under cover of a patently phony advanced college degree. Zarrella's compartmentalization of each and every car made by GM into a "brand " of its own, destroyed whatever there was left of the corporate leverage that each of GM divisions had. There were no more halos generated by being a part of the Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac line of automobiles. Each car model was an entity to itself and in competition with its marque-mates, rather than a buying continuum that could be purchased with pride from teen-ager to top corporate executive. GM had a car for you, but up-selling (or down for that matter) across the GM broad and deep product line was part of the new gospel according to Ron. Unfortunately, Lutz’s outing of this blackguard's lack of a sheepskin was nowhere near as vengeful as many who suffered through those awful days at GM would have liked. He deserved worse. And speaking of advanced degrees … Lutz goes on record that (even though HE has one) he’s not all that keen on MBAs and the like. There is a deep and abiding disdain shown for the formulaic, charts, and logarithms crowd (I can almost hear the term “Dang Book-Learning” hanging in the background). And this from a guy who studied business at Berkeley and was in the Marine Corps reserve at the same time! Lutz’s reputation is for forthrightness. On the other hand, as with all great art, his hindsight is that of a young eagle. Sometimes names frame people, and certainly Bob Lutz hanging it out in some-sort of job-defying stand on a product or a process relates to making a potential pratt-fall on ice skates. Close your eyes for a moment, and try to see my allusion, "Lutz" as a figure-skating term** … work with me here would you*?
His heroes are few, but he does mention that other maverick mover of motorcars Lee Iacocca. There actually are some similarities beyond both of them having a penchant for fine cigars. Both have an almost aristocratic bearing that they both seem to be purposely holding back on just to talk YOUR language (my friend) both know sales, and both know the value of the well-placed blow-dart. Not to demean his book in any way, in fact I’ll go on record right here as telling everyone who has ever clicked on this site more than eight times (which makes you a “regular” in my copybook) to get the book and to read it well. This is a book that car people (and you know if and who you are) should take a cruise through it as soon as possible. I’ll also stipulate that I dislike bean counters as much (or more) than the next guy … In fact, I may well be one of the world’s worst bean-counters. But this book’s basic, bedrock tenant (in case you have not divined it by now) is that, “Bob was right and everyone else was wrong,” don’t always work. All of those bad bean counters are told by someone who is not a bean counter to count those (friggen) beans. Right? So somewhere, somehow, sometime, we’ve got to get to the bean counters’ boss, who might just be... In fact, I sincerely wish that this guy was 30 years younger and dumb er … dedicated enough to run for high elected office (and we're NOT talking dog-catcher here). I’d vote for him in a half-heartbeat and happily suffer the consequences! And (be honest now) we've all said or thought the same thing about Lido a few years back. His chapter on what he would have done, given the Chairmanship is something of a mash-up of the truths that we all hold true. Sadly, he never got the chance and he (reluctantly) even allows as to how even he might not have been able to avoid bankruptcy, but quickly adds that he would have faced it far differently. In his final, summing up chapter, Bob Lutz strives mightily for clarity of message, and ends up sounding far more like a wise old uncle rather than a legendary executive firebrand. Agents of change are often like that, and, all things considered, we are all the better for this guy's life's work. In view of what now passes for top automotive executives and his smelly cigar and clay feet notwithstanding, I miss him already. – DS * (It is not here noted by Lutz, but in the big screen version of this book, I see that limo’s lights first slicing though a grey-white flurry of falling snow with a quick cut to the Cadillac emblem on the wheel just as it is stopping in the slush along the curb … Cutting to a long shot from many stories above as a uniformed chauffer opens a door and tall man in a long dark coat steps out, stops, waves off his driver's offer of a hat, and looks up toward an office window high on the Exide building … and then hurries inside.) ** The Lutz is a figure skating jump, named after Alois Lutz, an Austrian skater who performed it in 1913. It is a toepick-assisted jump with an entrance from a back outside edge and landing on the back outside edge of the opposite foot. The Lutz is considered one of the more difficult jumps because its entry is counterrotated — that is, the rotation of the jump is opposite to that of the entry edge.– from WIKIPEDIA Available at Amazon.com