Autosavant readers generally tend to be more in tune with the car business than the average person is. My wife has no idea who Bob Lutz is, but if I were standing around the water cooler at 100 Autosavant Plaza chatting with my colleagues, of course they’d know that I was referring to the former GM vice chairman, former Chrysler president, the father of the Viper and 1994 Ram pickup, the consummate car guy. During his career, when the outspoken Lutz had something to say, people tended to listen, even if he was sometimes off base with some of what he said.
Now that he’s retired, he has taken to looking back on his career and sharing colorful stories about the situations and characters that he encountered during his 40- year career in the car business. Though he’s written three books, Icons and Idiots was the second Bob Lutz-authored book that I’ve read. (The first, Guts: 8 Laws of Business from One of the Most Innovative Business Leaders of Our Time, was released prior to his tenure at GM and I believe described his tenure with Chrysler Corporation leading up to the Daimler Benz merger in 1998.)
Icons and Idiots is a series of profiles about the executives he worked under during his long career in the car business. Despite the title, there isn’t much content on the “idiot” side of the ledger; Lutz seems to pull his punches with almost every executive that he profiles and finds the good in every person despite their managerial idiosyncrasies. It’s almost as if he tried too hard to find something good about some people that he otherwise made to sound like pretty awful human beings. Coming across miserably: Phil Caldwell, Chairman & CEO of Ford from 1980-1985 who recently died. Lutz tells a story in which Caldwell, when working in the UK, insisted that Lutz’s driver seek out the manager (not assistant manager) to get a zipper bag of highly confidential contents. The driver was to take the bag directly to the airport, find the captain (not just a crew member) of the Ford corporate Gulfstream IV, and deliver the bag. The chauffeur later learned that the bag contained nothing but dozens of tiny jam pots served with breakfast in European hotels. Yet Lutz lets him off the hook at the end of the chapter because Caldwell was obsessed with making Ford a quality leader.
The one leader that Lutz does hammer is Arthur Hawkins, the former CEO of Exide, where Lutz served as his successor following Exide’s bankruptcy and between Lutz’s Chrysler and GM stints. Lutz describes a fascinatingly corrupt culture at Exide, taking its tone from the top. He describes meeting Hawkins and Hawkins just matter of factly describing where Lutz will find Exide’s dirty laundry. Hawkins was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in Exide intentionally selling defective car batteries.
On the other hand, perhaps the worst case of not burning bridges – which would have made a much more entertaining read – was Lutz’s chapter on Rick Wagoner, longtime CEO of General Motors who led the company from 2000 to 2009, when President Obama’s auto industry task force basically fired him and had Fritz Henderson take the reins for a few months. Lutz’s biggest critique of Wagoner was basically that the latter was just too nice of a guy and he was perhaps loyal to a fault. Reading between the lines, though, and you can tell that Lutz was a little frustrated with some of the analysis paralysis that Wagoner’s GM continued to suffer, despite Wagoner’s efforts to streamline and restructure the company. A prime example was the unwieldy performance management system that occupied an unhealthy amount of executives’ time and attention while rewarding the achievement of internal goals and not marketplace success.
Though Lutz says that GM had “every element in place for survival and growth through 2013” (in absence of the subprime mortgage meltdown and $4.25 per gallon gas price), not to mention a plan to weather a “normal” recession, it’s hard to accept that as something that would actually work. After all, Wagoner had a decade in the corner office and his results spoke for themselves; granted there was a product renaissance that began under his watch (thanks to his hiring of the author himself) but GM had been shedding market share for decades that that slide had not slowed, and certainly not reversed, prior to the 2007-2009 financial crisis. To think that GM’s plans would have gone, well, according to plan seems like wishful thinking.
To me, the best part of the book was the “inside baseball” stuff in which Lutz described with humor the behind-the-scenes activities behind some key periods of his career. He’s a gifted storyteller; I loved the chapter on Iacocca, even though most of that was already common knowledge around the industry. The worst part was that the content of the book just didn’t live up to either the title’s promise or to the high bar set by his last book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.
Overall: 3/5 stars.