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Bob Lutz Retires: GM Loses Its Maverick

Monday, 9 Feb 2009 | 11:23 AM ET
Bob Lutz
CNBC.com
Bob Lutz

When I broke the news this morning about GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz retiring I had mixed emotions.

On one hand I thought to myself, "Good for him. If this is what he wants to do, he should do it." On the other hand, I was thinking to myself, "It's too bad he won't be 'in the arena' because this industry needs someone like Bob Lutz."

GM Vice Chairman to Retire
GM vice chairman Bob Lutz will be retiring at the end of this year, reports CNBC's Phil Lebeau

Heck, let's be honest, GM needs someone like Bob Lutz.

He is the maverick who put the swagger back in Cadillac. He's the guy who came into GM in 2001 and said what few in the company had the courage to say: GM was bad. The quality wasn't up to snuff. The design, paint and finish were lackluster. He was also the person who freed up GMs designers to build models they could be proud of. In short, he gave GM its voice again.

It's hard to understate the profound impact Lutz has had on GM.

Remember what the interiors of GM models looked like in the late 90's. The looked and were cheap. To call them utilitarian would be a compliment. Before Lutz arrived the company made the Pontiac Aztec. When the funky looking crossover was introduced, GM executives tried to tell the world the Aztec styling is what people would want. Nobody bought it, literally and figuratively. Yet, it finally took Lutz to come out and kill the crossover. He had the guts to break with the GM culture of never admitting a mistake and say the Aztec was ugly.

Sure, Bob Lutz being Bob Lutz meant he created more than a few PR headaches for GM.

His dismissal of autos causing global warming made more than a few at the headquarters to cringe. And you know it was only a matter of time before he blasted the folks in Washington for making GM jump through hoop after hoop in order to get Federal aid. Perhaps that may be why this is the best time for Lutz to step aside. For better or worse, GM now has to play by Washington's rules and make sure it doesn't ruffle any feathers as it tries to convince the Treasury Department to lend the auto maker more money. The process won't be easy, and if Lutz tells some in Congress what most in Detroit really think about Washington (and we all know it's not a nice thought), then you be darn sure GM executives will be cringing.

That's the thing with mavericks. Everybody loves when the shoot from the hip, as long as nobody gets hurt.

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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