The first big-time car executive I interviewed was Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO and Ford Motor president. It was 1984 on a bitterly cold winter's day in Calgary.
Iacocca was flogging Iacocca: An Autobiography, explaining to the world how he dragged the former Chrysler Corp. from the brink of bankruptcy to outsized profits, with just a little help from a government bailout (all paid back) and a lot of hard work developing and selling K-cars and minivans. His pitch: "If you can find a better car, buy it!"
I was a business writer for The Edmonton Journal and my beat was planes, trains and automobiles. Lido – as some referred to him – was a car boss who impressed and intimidated me and I wasn't alone. Iacocca was the ultimate celebrity businessman in 1984. Some were pushing him to run for president – not of a car company, but of the United States. He was Donald Trump with class.
The Chrysler boss and American folk hero had come to Calgary to address a chamber of commerce luncheon. Iacocca owned the room. His speech was inspiring, the applause rapturous. Later, I was ushered into a room for my interview, nervous like a kid on his first day of school.
Here I was, face to face with the godfather of the Ford Mustang and perhaps a future president. He filled the room with self-confidence (ego?) and style – a true, old-style car company boss.
I did not expect to meet another like him, until I did. He was Bob Lutz, former Marine fighter pilot, president of Chrysler, then later vice-chairman of General Motors in a career that saw him in senior roles with Ford and BMW, too. Lutz had a regal bearing, tall and slim, his collar ties and bespoke suits well known. I once watched him give instructions in French to a chef in Switzerland where he grew up.
The new breed of CEO is different. Rupert Stadler at Audi and Mark Fields at Ford are serious all-business types who lead car companies at a time of wrenching change. We are watching the end of car companies and the emergence of mobility companies. That calls for different leadership skills. The days when an outsized car boss could lead his company out of the doldrums with a restyled Falcon called the Mustang are over. It's a tougher game now.
Fields spoke about it recently with analysts, about how car sharing, autonomous vehicles, connected cars, and new mobility solutions are reshaping the essence of what car companies do. Ford employees are encouraged to be disruptive, he said. Leadership and change are bubbling up, not being mandated from the top down by strong personalities.
It must be so. Audi believes that by 2020, 50 per cent of the value created by new the new "mobility" companies, will be based on apps, software, electronic systems and digital services. "Never before in nearly 130 years of automotive history has our industry changed as fast and as completely as now," Stadler said at the Shanghai motor show.
BMW officials talk about a "paradigm shift" to cities built around people, not around cars. Former BMW chief Norbert Reithofer suggested that challenges ahead for his successor, Harald Krueger, involve the rise of electric cars, automated driving and new competitors, along with massive shifts in consumer preferences and unpredictable fuel prices, noted a Reuters report out of Geneva's auto show.
Reithofer pointed to alternative drive trains and networked and highly-automated cars as the main challenges, but he warned of possible new competitors such as Apple and Google.
"The typewriter was replaced by the personal computer and many people underestimated that. For me, the auto industry is not shielded from new entrants who have know-how in software and networked cars," Reithofer said.
Another BMW management board member, Peter Schwarzenbauer, described it as two worlds colliding. "Our world, focused on hardware and our experience in making complex products, and the world of information technology which is intruding more and more into our life," he told Reuters.
Car companies will become full-fledged tech firms and tech firms could very well become car companies. The winning car companies will live in both worlds, he said.
I wonder if today's twentysomething reporter/blogger/videographer finds himself as awed by the new automotive world order as I was by its living embodiment, Lee Iacocca, on that cold day in Calgary 31 years ago.
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