GENEVA – Jet-setting seems to be the latest role for General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, recently appointed interim president of GM’s European operations.

Lutz says he will travel to the U.S. on a regular basis to fulfill his other responsibilities as head of North American product development.

Lutz will return to U.S. every other week.

Lutz is keeping the seat warm in Europe for current GM Asia/Pacific chief Fritz Henderson, who will move over to Europe in June. The management shuffle came as a result of the departure of Michael Burns, who left GM to head Dana Corp. last month. (See related story: Burns: Dana Mission to Restore Confidence)

Significant changes in GM’s European operations will not be made until Henderson gets into the position. Lutz says he will act as a consultant to GM Europe and will recommend changes to Henderson.

“Primarily I think I will first of all find out what’s going on in-depth, looking beneath the surface, and I will spend a lot of time talking to national sales companies and dealers and try to get an in-depth understanding as close to the actual market as possible of where are we strong, where are we weak,” he tells reporters on the sidelines of the auto show here. “I guess I would look at myself as doing a consulting job, preparing a consultant’s report for the next three months.”

Lutz says he will maintain close contact with Henderson while he wraps up duties in Asia. He then will assist Henderson in making necessary changes to the European organization.

“I would hope that by having this luxury of being able to take the time to really find out what’s going on I could then really give Fritz complete and hopefully legitimate analysis of where I see the weak points (and) what I would do if I were in (his) position,” he says.

Lutz plans to travel twice a month to the U.S. to keep on top of product planning responsibilities on the other side of the pond.

“I’m going to spend the tail end of every second week at product meetings on Thursday and Friday. So, every second week I’m going to do Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in (the U.S.),” he says.

Separately, Lutz says GM plans to move quickly to replace designer Brian Nesbitt, who moved to head design at GM’s Adam Opel AG unit after Martin Smith left the auto maker to head Ford Motor Co.’s European design operations.(See related story: Martin Smith to Ford Europe; Nesbitt Takes Opel Design Helm)

He expects Nesbitt’s vacancy at GM’s U.S. design team to be filled within the next few weeks.

“We have plenty of candidates and now that the job has suddenly opened up we want to fill it in the optimum way possible,” he says. “And we want to see if we can’t achieve a degree of cultural interaction through the change. We obviously have internal candidates who are in the U.S., but (we) just want to make sure we looked at all the possibilities, because I think it is a hugely important job.”

Lutz says it is unlikely the auto maker would consider non-GM candidates for the position, but it is likely the position could be given to a designer outside of North America.

While some people were surprised by Smith’s decision to leave GM Europe, Lutz says GM had decided a while ago to move Smith to the U.S., with Nesbitt moving to his Opel post.(See related story: Smith Defection to Ford Europe Stirs Rumors)

“It was supposed to happen March 1. Brian was supposed to go to Opel and Martin was supposed to take over Brian’s job, so we were swapping them. And then kind of at the last minute Martin decided he would really rather stay in Europe,” Lutz says.

Lutz sings Nesbitt’s praises, and the 35-year old certainly is being groomed as a potential successor to Ed Wellburn, GM’s current design boss.

“He’s more than a hot-pencil,” Lutz says. “Art schools grind out hot-pencils by the dozen every month. Brian works well with the engineers, can do great designs on a reasonable budget and is a brilliant communicator. He can sell his designs inside the company and to the press, as well as coach and teach his team. This is his exceptional strength.

“But nowhere is it written that Brian Nesbitt will be the next head (of GM design),” he says.

with Peter Robinson

kekelly@primediabusiness.com