Lutz Reflects on Career, Accomplishments, GM
DETROIT — When General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz looked back at his near half-century career in a recent interview with AOL Autos, the design guru and longtime industry executive said the vehicle that he is most proud of is the Chevrolet Volt.
Lutz — who is retiring from his post at GM on May 1 after a career that spanned 48 years with four automakers — shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, including GM's re-emergence, his role with the automaker and his various accomplishments.
Lutz has had a hand in developing some of GM's most dynamic new models, like the Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Malibu, Buick Skylark, as well as the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.
While helping to turn around Chrysler in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Lutz's innovation also led to the revolutionary Dodge Viper.
But when AOL Autos asked what vehicle makes him the proudest, he pointed to the Volt, especially because of its technology.
"Previously, every other vehicle I've been involved with and have been proud of has been an exceptionally good execution of something that someone had done before, but it never really broke new ground technologically," Lutz noted.
"But the Volt does break new ground. In the field of alternative-drive systems, it leapfrogs what has been employed by our Japanese competitors, and it was also a very interesting program to execute, because there was a lot of internal and external skepticism," he added. "There were a lot of naysayers who said it was BS, or that it was just PR, or that the lithium-ion battery would never work, or that GM wasn't serious about this."
Lutz continued: "So, facing all that negativism, and ultimately triumphing with a car that has a good chance of making a major impact, is thrilling."
He went on to list CTS, Pontiac G8, Solstice and Sky as some of his best accomplishments, as well.
And in addition to his vehicle-related accomplishments, Lutz is also credited with helping to change the culture at GM since his arrival in 2001.
Essentially, Lutz aimed to steer GM back to focusing on "product excellence" as it had done in the 1950s and ‘60s, but somehow gone away from in the '70s through '90s.
"Well, when I came back in 2001, there was a business-school attitude at the company that the product was only one element, and that it was just one of the many factors that had to be blended together for maximum financial impact," Lutz commented. "But that theory no longer works.
"It's really only by focusing on the product, and identifying with it, and loving it, and giving it the best look, to just aim for the goal of creating the best product you know how, that will give you the greatest rewards," he added. "That was GM's legacy of the 1950s and '60s, when GM had the best styling, engines and technology."
Lutz continued: "Then, from the '70s through the '90s, that ethic became lost. I was happily able to connect GM to its past, and re-focus on the primacy of product excellence."
Moving on, Lutz also addressed the current state of the automaker, its restructuring and emergence from bankruptcy in the last year.
While bankruptcy can be "perfect" for correcting a company's problems — "and in this case, fixing some things that should have been fixed years ago," he said — Lutz acknowledged the detrimental impact it tends to have on shareholders.
"But the new GM, as it's been restructured, is largely debt-free, so we're in far, far better shape now. Our labor costs are on a par with those in the Japanese transplant facilities in the Southern states," he suggested.
"Our margins were actually never that bad, but by the time you allocated fixed costs, we were upside down when we sold the vehicle," Lutz added. "Now, we have lower fixed costs, so we have bigger margins, and that will definitely help the bottom line. I think GM is going to be a profitable and healthy auto company, but right now I couldn't really put a time line on that."
Continuing on, when asked whether moving to an advisory role in December — and thus not likely to make as much of a direct impact — was a major impetus for his retirement, Lutz acknowledged that it did play a part.
But he also suggested that his primary goals — that of shifting the focus to product and changing the culture — had been accomplished.
With that said, AOL Autos asked Lutz if he believed this changed culture at GM would continue in his absence.
Apparently, there wasn't a doubt in Lutz's mind.
"If I had any doubts or suspicions that it would go back, I would stay, and the minute I saw that happening, I would be right there, haranguing people and criticizing that," he noted.
"Ed Whitacre adopted a simple mission statement, once it was decided that we needed one that could be remembered by everyone, so that everyone knows what the company is all about," Lutz continued. "We had a discussion about that, and it took us about 10 minutes to come up with it. And that statement is this: Our plan is to build and sell the world's best cars and trucks."
He added: "Even now, Ed will buttonhole individual employees, ask them their name, and ask them what they do, and then he'll ask them, ‘What is our mission statement?; And he won't be satisfied until he can walk into any assembly plant and pose that question to any line worker, and hear that as the answer."