Before General Motors Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre announced the shakeup in the company’s executive ranks on Dec. 4, the rumor mill was cranking out all kinds of possibilities about the future of Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Some said he would quit. Others said that he would become CEO.
The latter was never going to happen, not with a board of directors that wants a change of pace and a new look at the company. At the same time, the board would have created even more problems if the company ousted Lutz. GM’s cars have gotten much better under Lutz. Styling is more aggressive. Inside, they have much nicer cabins than GM has ever put out. Without Lutz to barrel through the bureaucracy or do an end run around it, much of that would never happened.
Will he have much impact in his new role as vice chairman and advisor? Lutz says he believes he will even though he has no budget and no direct reports. His powers of persuasion and ability to get Whitacre to listen to him on key product decisions will dictate how much influence Lutz will have. If Whitacre is wise, he will listen to Lutz. Whitacre is a very successful CEO in his own right, but he confesses that he doesn’t know much about cars. Lutz does.
If Lutz doesn’t have much of an impact, he will leave pretty soon. That would be a shame. Whoever Whitacre and the board hire as a new CEO—and even if “Big Ed” keeps the job himself—GM will need a car guy to shepherd the good designs from the sketch pads to dealer showrooms. Even at 77, Lutz can make a difference.