General Motors

Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am

Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business
by Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz is a giant in the automotive industry. The former Marine fighter pilot developed his lifelong passion for cars and their publicity at General Motors in Europe, BMW and Ford. As the outspoken president of ailing Chrysler, Lutz wowed critics with the muscular Dodge Viper, and with typical bravado launched the first Jeep Grand Cherokee through a Detroit motor show plate-glass window.

Lutz is as punchy in his latest book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, which describes his recruitment at 69 and subsequent nine-year stint as the group's vice-chairman for product development.

Lutz found GM in 2001 was a shadow of the company he first joined in 1963. The fuel crises of the 1970s and Japanese competition had forced GM to abandon its gas guzzlers, retool for smaller front-wheel-drive models, and cut costs on car designs. And the designers, engineers and 'product guy', stars of GM's Mad Men-era heyday, had become bit parts in a penny-pinching culture of clipboards and spreadsheets.

He also encounters corporate hubris, exaggerated respect for senior management and a tendency to delay projects without layers of research. Even a simple Cadillac Christmas card required several changes, Lutz writes.

Sprinkling faint praise on former colleagues, he describes GM's embrace of brand-management strategies that led to an oversized marketing team, and a 'horror show' of doomed models such as the Pontiac Aztek.

Lutz will strike chords in Hong Kong as he describes how he reviewed GM's vehicles, avuncularly urged his passive underlings to question his opinions and allowed the group's designers to flourish.

He got results: the Pontiac Solstice roadster gave GM a racy face; the Cadillac CTS received an award-winning interior and the Saturn Aura and Chevrolet Silverado were the 2007 North American Car and Truck of the Year. His Chevrolet Malibu was best car in the following year and he pushed the halo Volt electric car,

But the failure of the GMC Envoy XUV taught him to adopt 'total disdain for what the legions of high-grade-point-average MBAs in the 'volume' planning group came up with'. Mocking their buzzword-ridden memos, he justifies his efforts to recruit candidates who are 'unaffected by the MBA virus' and bets that 'the two young engineers at Chrysler who tinkered with a company car over several weekends and at low cost, created the first US manual-shift feature for automatic transmissions were not 3.5-GPA intellectuals'.

Having retired from the bailed-out GM in May 2010, Lutz gamely admits that he was wrong to think GM's China ventures were 'naive and foolhardy' but applauds the group's profitable exploitation of Buick's historic mainland links.

Lutz's reforms arguably helped GM make cars Americans wanted to buy and survive, but rants rust his legacy in this readable book. He rails against the protectionism of the Japanese and scorns televised portrayals of globally warmed polar bears on ice floes ('hello - they can swim'), and laments the costs of union power.

But he underplays the increasing acceptance of accountancy in business and the modern profession's efforts to augment its bean-counting expertise with product and social skills. His penultimate chapter seems a redundant Willie Loman-esque ramble entitled 'If I had been CEO', but Lutz loved his V8 vroom and chrome. And he is 79.