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Auto veteran Lutz set to leave GM on good note

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Auto veteran Lutz set to leave GM on good note

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York -- GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz realized it was time to retire as he walked the floor of the Geneva auto show last month.

"I looked at all of those wacko design proposals and really bad stuff from (European designers) and bad concepts, I thought 'This is not much fun anymore,' " he said.

So after a 47-year automotive career, Lutz is hanging up his spurs.

After a final round of seemingly endless auto shows -- New York this week -- product launches and the grind of the job, Lutz will leave GM on May 1 at age 78. His next assignment: a book -- which, he says jokingly, he'll call "Intended Acceleration."

After eight years of stressing quality products at GM, Lutz believes, the idea is firmly rooted in the company's DNA.

"I think I'm leaving the company finally focused back on the right thing," Lutz said. "General Motors spent 30 years chasing every kind of metric -- hours per vehicle, base-engineered content, parts re-use, attainment of diversity targets -- 50 different metrics, and excellent products was sort of one."

"The naïve belief was if you track every one of the metrics and you do well on every one, the end result is a great car company -- not," Lutz said. "Over 8 1/2 years, we have been able to destroy that whole culture."

Lutz said GM now is convinced that a "best in class," quality vehicle is the way to win -- even if it costs $600 or $700 more than the prior model.

"There's none of this 'provide shared value for the shareholder,' and 'be a good corporate citizen.' ... All of that will take care of itself if we do the world's best cars and trucks."

Lutz is convinced GM won't revert to its old ways.

"I don't think the company is capable of doing a bad car," he said, adding that "there would be armed revolution" if GM executives failed to put design first.

Ed Wellburn, vice president of global design for GM, said he can't imagine GM de-emphasizing design.

"People that aren't even in design would be shocked (if we did)," Wellburn said.

Lutz started at GM in 1963, jumped to BMW AG in 1971, and spent a dozen years at Ford Motor Co. until 1986. He's credited with help designing the Ford Explorer.

After Ford, he went to Chrysler, rising to president and chief operating officer, and vice chairman -- but never winning the top job.

After a four-year stint as CEO at battery company Exide Technologies, Lutz rejoined GM in September 2001 as vice chairman and head of product development.

In February 2009, Lutz said he would retire by year's end. But he was kept on, after the company exited bankruptcy, deciding to retire soon after GM's board named Ed Whitacre as permanent CEO.

Lutz impressed the Obama auto task force with his passion for the business, compared with many staid executives. He had a close working relationship with both of GM's previous CEOs, Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson, but not with Whitacre.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Lutz reshaped the business.

"Bob reignited the passion for design and good engineering inside of General Motors," Cole said. "He got people focused on the products. It doesn't mean there isn't a business side, but you have to have great products."

Cole agrees with Henderson that GM won't return to its old ways.

"The old habits are gone forever," Cole said, adding that GM has reduced its costs by $5,000 or $6,000 per vehicle, and can put more money into improving them.

Lutz still is thinking about cars of the future.

In 20 or 30 years, he said, "You won't be driving. It will all be done by computer. You will program in your destination, put yourself in your car. It will start and drive itself."

Lutz isn't too worried about a future of cars without drivers.

"It may seem sad for some of us, but I don't think I will be around in 30 years to where I have worry about it anyway," he said.

From The Detroit News:


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