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Auto People In The News

by Bob Hagin

September 3, 2001

It's people that make, sell and drive cars and at the stratified higher echelons of the auto world, it's also people that run the companies that make the cars. Here's a few of top honchos and what they've been up to lately:

LUTZ LANDS AT GENERAL MOTORS - If you're not familiar with the name Robert Lutz, you'll no doubt recognize the notable vehicles that came out of the old pre-Daimler Chrysler Corp. when he was in charge. The Plymouth Prowler and Dodge Viper sports cars came to fruition during his term as president, as well as the wildly successful Plymouth (now Chrysler-branded) PT Cruiser retro surfer-wagon. After he retired in '98, he resurfaced as CEO of the battery maker Exide. But this 69-year old ex-fighter pilot didn't retire to the country club and its golf course. Long on moxie regarding what's cool and sellable, Lutz was on occasion called in by GM chief exec Richard Wagoner, Jr. for "advice" on how to inject some life into the stodgy GM lineup and stem its slide in sales. Now Lutz has taken a big step and signed on as vice-chairman and head of GM's product development division. It will no doubt take a few years before Lutz's influence will be seen in GM showrooms and the question in the minds of most journalists is if his "glamour boy" image and style can survive the multi-layered mediocrity at General Motors.

FORD'S NASSER UNDER THE GUN - On the other hand, there's few TV news viewers who are not familiar with Jacque Nasser, CEO of the Ford Motor Company. A year ago, Nasser was an auto industry "star" who could do no wrong and was leading the company to an ever-brighter tomorrow. He had bagged Volvo and Land Rover and put together Ford's revolutionary Premiere Group of luxury brands. But that was before Ford slipped into organizational and quality problems, the most spectacular of which was the auto-maker's media mudslinging melee with tire-maker Firestone over who and what was responsible for the hundreds of roll-overs of Ford Explorer SUVs here and abroad. Adding to Nasser's woes are the myriad of recalls of Ford products already on the road and the quality-induced delays of new Ford models. Ford profits are also dropping. Meanwhile, William Ford Jr., great-grandson of the founder of the company, is assuming more input into the company through his capacity as chairman of the board of directors. There may be a Ford in Ford's future.

NISSAN'S GHOSN SPARKLES - When Renault took over control of Nissan in '99, it sent in Carlos Ghosn, former turnaround expert at Michelin, to revive the failing automaker. It was bleeding red ink, its products were stale, its advertising in this country lacked direction and its work force was demoralized. Ghosn stated that if he couldn't reverse the fortunes of Nissan in a year, he'd resign. Needless to say Ghosn is still at the helm. He has lead the company to a net $2.7-billion profit in his first year as head man, as opposed to a $5.6-billion loss the year before. He is now totally in charge of Nissan world-wide and has even boosted the morale by sweeping away deadwood managers and even rewarded company workers with a bonus that was 20-percent greater than the year before. Maybe he could work some of his Gallic charm for Ford or General Motors.

PIECH SAYS VW NEEDS OVERHAUL - One of the major European automotive success stories of the past decade is that of Volkswagen, almost emulating the Phoenix-like resurrection of the company from the rubble of World War II. At 64, Ferdinand Piech, its Chief Executive Officer, is preparing to retire and ready to take credit for world-wide VW winners like the new Passat, Golf and the nostalgia-laden New Beetle. But lately Piech (grandson of the venerated Ferdinand Porsche) has been talking of the need for replacements at the top levels of Volkswagen and bad- mouthing the management of Audi, VW's upscale sibling. He's even discussed the sagacity of selling it off. He speaks of Volkswagen as being a potential target for a takeover by a world "player" like GM or Ford, both of whom have capital problems to deal with. Peich, an engineer by training and a certified "car guy," has long been viewed as indifferent to stockholders and investors. It's thought that the advocating of a major managerial shake-up and a potential takeover would drive up the worth of shares and Peich would take credit for this occurrence. This would put him in line for chairmanship of VW's powerful supervisory board, a position that requires approval of a majority of stockholders. Such are the workings at the upper echelons.

TOYOTA VERSES JACKSON - The Rev. Jesse Jackson seems to be everywhere and into all kinds of crusades. If he isn't negotiating the release of American hostages overseas, he's marching for the rights of expelled high-school football players in Illinois or running for the Democratic nomination for president of the U.S. In the automotive field, he stumped against the sexual harassment of female workers at the Mitsubishi plant four months ago. Recently Jackson took umbrage with a Toyota postcard ad that showed an African-American's smiling face with a golden picture of a Toyota RAV4 on one front tooth. His much publicized confrontations with Toyota brass has gone from garnering a simple apology to a company pledge to increase spending by $700-million with minority-owned suppliers, $50-million with minority advertising firms and $25-million annually on minority-owned dealership development programs. "Reverend Jackson opened our eyes," said a company spokesman.

As you can see, these are people like you and me but they control the destinies of what vehicles we drive and what we pay for them. They're just like us - but lots richer.