DEARBORN, MI – His new book is titled “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business,” but formerVice Chairman Bob Lutz has only good things to say about the financial executives currently in charge at the auto maker.
“They don’t have the 30-year history of being trained to run the automobile business in the U.S. the wrong way,” he says during a recent book-signing event here.
Lutz gives credit to current CEO Dan Akerson and his predecessor Ed Whitacre for setting the right priorities and creating financial controls that more accurately track the costs and profit margins of vehicles.
“I think the company is in good hands,” he says, complaining that GM lost market share for decades because it focused on the wrong targets and allowed financial analyses and projections to rule the day rather than product excellence.
“It was sad to see so many people expending so much effort doing the wrong things,” Lutz says.
When Ed Whitacre took the helm of GM following its bankruptcy and subsequent bailout by the U.S. government, Lutz says Whitacre insisted on one simple mission: designing and building the world’s best cars and trucks.
Akerson now is following through on Whitacre’s initiative, Lutz says. When the top leadership says product excellence is the most important priority, it is going to get done, he adds.
The reorganized GM now will continue to be successful because it has changed its focus from being an analytical numbers-driven company to one trying to do best-in-class vehicles every time, Lutz says. The strategy ultimately costs more per vehicle, but stronger sales and higher transaction prices more than make up the difference, he says.
Lutz is far less kind to Steven Rattner, the “Car Czar” appointed by President Obama to oversee the GM andgovernment bailouts.
Rattner widely is considered to have rescued GM andfrom liquidation, but he also was highly unpopular with many auto industry insiders and most Republicans who thought the auto makers should not have been rescued.
Among other things, Rattner fired Rick Wagoner, GM’s well-liked CEO, and questioned the relevancy of the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle, one of Lutz’s pet projects. In “Overhaul” Rattner’s book about the bailout, Rattner calls Lutz an overrated executive.
Lutz says his book, which goes on sale June 9, is not a response to Rattner.
“I don’t dwell on the bankruptcy. That’s been written about so much and frankly it’s not my area of expertise,” Lutz says. “It’s probably worth a good unbiased book by somebody, but that somebody would not be Steve Rattner.”
Lutz says the only mention of Rattner in his book is that the Obama auto taskforce selected “an able financier of dubious reputation.”
After those biting comments, Lutz gets a little wistful about the demise of GM’s Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac units, and the sale of Saab.
“I had no problem with two (of the decisions), Saturn I had a slight problem with, and Pontiac I had a major emotional problem with. But the analytical side of my brain, and I do have one, would agree we had to get rid of them and focus on the four brands we had left,” Lutz says.
“Hummer was fatally wounded because it was the environmental antichrist,” he jokes. “(Hummer) was symbolic of everything the left-wing press said was evil about Detroit, even though a Hummer H2 did not burn any more fuel than a V-12 Mercedes S-Class. But that pretty much is beside the point.
“Saab was forever a drain on our resources, and we probably should never have bought the thing in the first place.”
However, Lutz says he was disappointed Saturn couldn’t make it because GM had given the division the best product lineup in its history, including the Aura sedan, Sky roadster and Outlook cross/utility vehicle. Pontiac also had a strong rear-wheel-drive lineup at the end, including the G8 sedan, Solstice roadster and hardtop. Plus, Pontiac also was slated get a sporty car built off a Cadillac platform.
“Pontiac was virtually destroyed by the fact that we had a new head of Pontiac division about every eight months, and every head had a brand-new idea for its product direction,” he says.