What if GM Car Czar Bob Lutz is the kind of hero General Motors needs, hurling Volts from high atop the Ren Center to stave off Chapters 7 and 11? What if he's fighting the bureaucratic beast from within, under the guise of corporate tool, a double agent, if you will? Could Maximum Bob be one of the good guys? Double Lutz?
The General has had a tough couple of decades. Lutz arrived at his current job in 2002, hopping on the continuous market share slide. He is Vice Chairman, charged with global product development. During his tenure, the General has leaked significant levels of everything used to value a corporation: cash, investor confidence, consumer confidence, brand strength, hope, faith and charity. GM kissed away 23 percent of the US market since 1979, five of that during Lutz's stint.
Yet Lutz and his boss Rick Wagoner are still calling the shots, with the full backing of the Board. In most companies losing seven million dollars an hour, this is not the case. So why aren't these guys sitting on the curb with cardboard boxes on their laps?
There are several possible explanations. 1. The Board is stupid. 2. Inter-mingling with other blue-chip boards has created a web of complicity. 3. They invite bankruptcy. 4. They're telling it like it is: the Board believes in what Wagoner and Lutz are doing to turn the company around. This one is the hardest believe– unless all is not as it appears.
Robert A. Lutz is a retired Marine Corps aviator who speaks three languages. Born in Switzerland, 1932, he joined General Motors Europe in 1963. He worked at BMW in the early 70s, where he took part in the development of the storied 3-Series. At Ford, he rose through the Chairmanship of Ford of Europe all the way to the Ford Board. From there, he jumped to Chrysler, where he oversaw the Viper, Prowler and LH platform. Four years as CEO of Exide brings him back to GM.
Lutz has never been cocooned in Detroit. He's continuously championed European driving dynamics and technology in America. He's lead and lost political battles at each of the Detroit marks. It is difficult to accept him as a clueless– or even disinterested– Hindenburg pilot. The alternative, then, is Lutz at the stick of a Raptor.
The Chevy Volt project is being run unlike anything in GM's recent corporate memory. No curtains. No tarps. Everything everyone is doing is out in the open, blasted at the press and rocketing forward at twice normal development speed. This is GM's moon shot.
The Volt is anti-GM culture to its core. Literally. They ridiculed hybrids not five years ago and shot their own electric car in the back. Now, The General is throwing resources it doesn't have and what's left of its reputation at a vehicle that, as of right now, will not work.
Lutz is the father of the Volt. At Exide, he became enamored with batteries and electric drive and saw potential freedom from Saudi and Venezuelan oil. In 2006, he commissioned something striking for the 2007 Detroit Autoshow, telling his engineers and designers he wanted a game-changer.
The game he wants to change, though, is inside the Ren Center. A full century of corporate calcification has made it near impossible to do anything, let alone anything well. GM is notorious for tall decision trees, needing months to climb, and middle managers who've learned that sticking your neck out is the surest way to get cut down to size.
All of this is antithetical to a way a fighter pilot thinks. Marines understand chain of command. They are not above their brand of bureaucracy, but they are trained to get their orders and get the job done. The job in this case: overtake the former axis powers and regain US supremacy of the roads.
For victory, the Volt will need to zap GM's corporate mindset on sustainability, environmental policy, accountability and resource allocation. It has to turn around the crowd that killed the EV1 and dozens of other start-stop projects that sapped GM resources and credibility for a generation. And that, even more than build a cool car, is what Lutz really wants to do.
Lutz has repeatedly stated that this project is important not just to GM, but to the whole US auto industry. Yeah, he blankets the media jungle with crazy-palm. He has to. He needs to stoke what fire is left at GM and he can't use the truth to do it. How could he not sound ludicrous most of the time?
That expression about turning around an aircraft carrier doesn't apply to the General. It's more like a whole fleet. Maybe, just maybe, Maximum Bob is using the Volt to light the way.
More by Michael Martineck
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