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GM will always need a car guy at the top

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GM will always need a car guy at the top


DECEMBER 14, 2009 - 12:01 AM ET

As interim CEO Ed Whitacre begins putting his imprint on General Motors, it is encouraging that one of the first changes he has made is to combine product development with purchasing under the auspices of Tom Stephens. That should shorten the lines of communication and improve efficiency in two key areas -- and it may be the kind of needed change that's more obvious to an outsider than a GM lifer.

After emerging from Chapter 11 with dramatically reduced costs, GM must be all about generating revenue by developing great products that consumers want to buy; linking product development and purchasing ought to help.

So it is troubling that one-time GM product guru Bob Lutz apparently has been marginalized and relegated to being Whitacre's adviser, without portfolio or operational responsibilities.

Not everyone is a fan of Bob Lutz. But love him or hate him, there is no denying what Lutz has accomplished -- or that GM needed the force of his character and his golden-gut understanding of product.

Since Lutz joined GM in September 2001, he has retooled the automaker's product development process, creating an esprit de corps by empowering engineers and designers and, when necessary, standing up to financial staffers who could have eroded product improvements.

Obviously, the 77-year-old Lutz won't stay at GM forever -- and current global product development boss Stephens says he has learned the ropes from Lutz. But GM must maintain its momentum in product development, even after Lutz leaves. The automaker must retain, codify and build on the changes that Lutz has led.

It is imperative that GM keep a strong product voice at the top of the company, either as CEO, COO or perhaps a Lutz-like product czar.

To succeed, the new GM needs a car-guy culture.

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