Bob Lutz has high praise for Rick Wagoner. But maybe thatâs to be expected. After all, Rick is his boss.
Lutz is vice chairman of product development atCorp. Wagoner is chairman, president and CEO.
âI think heâs far and away the best boss Iâve ever had,â says Lutz, who has worked under some big-time bosses, including Chairman Lee A. Iacocca atCorp., where Lutz rose to vice chairman before retiring eight years ago.
âIntellectually, I just feel comfortable (with Rick). Itâs close to ideal,â Lutz says. He recognizes my particular skills, and he also has fairly good product instincts himself and is getting better all the time. He stays involved and asks a lot of questions. Heâs very self-effacing.â
Not that they always see eye-to-eye. âYeah, sometimes we donât,â says Lutz.
âBut he says itâs healthy we have these disagreements. Weâre 90% aligned and 10% not. But then we can have a healthy discussion. Too many people donât want to take him on, but Iâm bulletproof because I donât worry about my next job; my career is (basically) behind me.
âHe may dislike (disagreements), but too many people wonât argue. When I have a confrontation, thereâs push and shove but then a decision is made.â
Lutz was recruited five years ago by Wagoner and, as he approaches 75, says he expects to stay on until heâs 80, health permitting. If he didnât get along with Wagoner, and vice versa, itâs not likely he would hang around.
As GMâs resident âcar guy,â Lutz has moved to solidify GMâs product development worldwide and to kick-start its once moribund designs, concentrating not only on exteriors but interiors as well.
Lutzâs report card is mixed so far. Since he joined GM, there have been a few hits such as the low-volume Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky 2-seat roadsters; Chevy HHR; Cadillac CTS, and Buick Lucerne.
The Cadillac STS and DTS also have been revamped under his watch, with less success in the marketplace.
Other models have been upgraded in all of GMâs truck lines, and the wave of all-new fullsize SUVs and light trucks now entering the market has gotten high marks so far, especially for their interiors.
His early attempt to quickly rekindle the passion for Pontiacâs GTO icon by grabbing an existing car from GMâs Australian operations failed chiefly because it lacks styling pizzazz. GMâs redesigned compact pickups also have been branded yawners.
Lutz concedes much more needs to be done to reverse GMâs stodgy design reputation, and he sounds like a little boy in a toy store when he talks about future products. âWaitâll you see the new CTSâ thatâs likely coming in 2008,â he exclaims.
And Lutz says Wagoner is pushing for even stronger, bolder designs.
That wasnât the case at the formerCorp. when Lutz joined in 1986. Then-chairman Iacocca still was pushing âfake wire wheels and vinyl roofs,â he says.
âHe didnât match the cars with this age-wave thing (that is, looking ahead), whereas Rick has a deep understanding of design trends. Even if heâs uncomfortable, heâll ask, âWhy are we doing this?â If you explain why, then it becomes plausible.â
Wagoner and Lutz did not initially agree on how to position the revived Chevrolet Camaro, which went out of production in 2002 after a 35-year run.
Wagoner gave the green light to build the new car in August, and GMâs Oshawa, Ont., Canada, assembly plant subsequently was chosen to launch production in late 2008 as an â09 model.
A production target of 100,000 units annually has been mentioned.
Reminiscent of the â69 Camaro, the new version is said to be almost identical to the concept car that elicited rave reviews when it was unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Was it a tough sell to convince Wagoner to green-light the project?
âNot at all,â Lutz says, although, âInitially we had a spirited discussion. Rick felt the first thing we should do is a 4-door (referring to a potential sedan derivative off the same global rear-wheel-drive architecture as the Camaro being developed by GM Holden Ltd. in Australia) because that would produce more revenues than a âpony carâ (like Camaro).
âI agreed, but I said first we should be highly emotional and do a killer car and change the sequence,â Lutz recalls. âHe finally agreed with me, and then weâll do the 4-door,âLutz says.
Lutz didnât want a Camaro reincarnation for â5,000 or 6,000 owners-collectors,â he says.
âI thought we should go well beyond the â69. Rick said, âYeah, thatâs right.â One (design) group had been struggling to get it right, and then the second group came up with theirs, and I said, âHot dog!â and Rick agreed.â
After leaving Chrysler, Lutz moved on to become chairman of Exide Technologies, best known for making batteries. He says many of his colleagues and associates kept hammering away about GMâs lack of a bona fide âcar guy,â who has unique product instincts because GMâs âbrand managementâ scheme âwas not paying out.â
Wagoner and Lutz did not know each other well, except by reputation. By coincidence, Wagoner introduced Lutz during a speaking engagement in mid-2001 at the Orchard Lake Country Club in suburban Detroit.
âI sat at his table, and he asked me what I would do differently at GM,â Lutz recalls. âI poured it on to him. He said, âYouâve got a lot of opinions,ââ which is hardly news to anyone who knows Lutz.
A few weeks later, Lutz and Wagoner met at Lutzâs office in Ann Arbor, MI. As Lutz recounts the meeting, Wagoner said he wanted a product guru âwired like you are,â and asked if Lutz knew any 50-year-olds who met his criteria and might be available.
âThere probably is one maybe in Europe or Japan or maybe GM, but I donât know one,â Lutz recalls. âIâm somewhat unique. Iâm a car nut, but I also have an MBA (from the University of California-Berkeley, 1962). Most car nuts are into hot rodsâ but lack the combination of business skills as well.â
With that, Wagoner asked if Lutz might consider becoming a consultant to GM. âI said, if I was a consultant no one would listen to me,â Lutz says. âThen he said, âWould you consider yourself?â and I said, âAbsolutely.ââ
And thatâs how Lutz wound up as Wagonerâs âcar guy.â At first it was to be a 3-year contract starting in August 2001, but it ultimately was extended to December 2005. âSince then, Iâve been a regular employee,â says Lutz, who may still be around in 2012. âWhy not if I feel good, especially now when itâs so exciting?â