Lutz Leaves GM and a Legacy

Bob Lutz
CNBC.com
Bob Lutz

Of all the auto executives I have covered, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz may be the one who generates the most spirited response from viewers and readers.

His fans love him.

Critics think he gets too much praise.

But nearly everyone agrees that when Lutz talks, the auto industry listens. And not just because of the candor of his comments. In the last 40 years, he is perhaps the most influential executive in an industry where few have had staying power.

And now, 37 years after starting his career, Bob Lutz is finally retiring.

He is leaving a General Motors that is far different than when he joined it 9 years ago. When former CEO Rick Wagoner brought Lutz out of retirement General Motors had 9 brands, a largely forgettable line-up of cars, and was guilty of being run to support its balance sheet, as opposed to having a vision for growing and attracting buyers. In short, it was a mess. Lutz was brought in to breathe life into the stable of GM brands that were adrift.

How bad was it? Just think of the Pontiac Aztek.

Lutz was the first GM executive to say what everyone could plainly see.

The Aztek was ugly.

The Aztek should not have been built.

The Aztek was symbolic of how GM had lost its way.

Finally, someone within General Motors was being honest. That was just the start. He convinced Wagoner and other GM executives to let GM's designers be creative, take chances, and build models that make people want to drive them.

Since then, GM has steadily improved its styling and the quality of what it builds. The new Malibu being a perfect example. Sure, not everything under Lutz worked out. He couldn't get GM to revive Saturn. The styling and appeal of Pontiac improved, but sales still lagged. And Buick remained a disappointment.

Still, GM would not have improved it's line-up as much as it has over the last decade were it not for Lutz pushing the company executives to let chief designer Ed Wilburn and his team do their thing. Lutz saw the potential in GM's line-up when others were writing it off. It wasn't enough to keep GM from sliding into bankruptcy, but that is a corporate issue.

A true testament to the appeal of Bob Lutz is to talk with executives with other auto companies about his retirement. Within the last couple of months, I've had the chance to discuss this with several executives and nearly everyone said the same thing, "If I could get him to come in here, I would."

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