The on Autoblog with Paul Eisenstein

Where have all the mavericks gone?

When he hands in his office keys a few days from now, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz will begin an oft-delayed retirement that was originally set to begin shortly after the ill-fated "merger of equals" between Daimler and Chrysler.

His decision to rejoin the automotive workforce a few years later wasn't all that much of a surprise to those who knew the former Marine pilot and what quite literally could be called his driving ambition. That leads many to suspect we'll continue to hear from Lutz, even though he bluntly wonders, "Who would hire a senior executive who's nearly 80 years old?"

Finally, it seems, this old soldier really may fade away, taking on a book assignment and a board seat or two. And, in the process, Lutz's departure will bring with it a different sort of change in the auto industry, the departure of the last classic automotive maverick.

Pull out a pen and jot down the names of the best-known auto industry executives. Your list might include Billy Ford or Alan Mulally, Ed Whitacre or even Carlos Ghosn, if you're taking the global view. Despite their prominence, even their willingness to take risks, these aren't exactly the sort of mavericks and eccentrics the industry was long known for.

That goes for Sergio Marchionne, the head of both Fiat and Chrysler. True, he's not your typical gray-flannel executive – he buys his trademark black sweaters "by the dozen," he jokes – and is clearly playing a high-risk poker game in his effort to turn around a desperately ill American automaker. But in the end, if someone eventually writes the Harvard Business Review analysis of the Canadian-educated executive, he'll still turn out to be another by-the-books strategist.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

Perhaps that's where the auto industry needs to be today. It is, after all, a business of tremendous size, where even the smallest projects require the investment of 100s of millions, even billions, of dollars. Stockholders are loathe to bet their investments on a company run by a manager who might break the rules and risk it all on a whim.

The increasingly regulated nature of the automotive business further demands that top executives play it by the books – the MBA training manuals – it could be argued. And that will only become even more the case as rulemakers around the world tighten safety, mileage and emissions standards.

There's simply no place for a Lutz going forward, nor a John DeLorean, a Horace Dodge or a Walter P. Chrysler.

Or will there be?

In a lengthy conversation with Lutz this month, he described the situation he discovered when he arrived at General Motors late in 2001 as "old...and ossified." On paper, the system seemed to be perfect, with all the right lines and arrows on the org chart, including an entire department charged with being creative. Yet for every Chevrolet Corvette that team approved, there were two Pontiac Azteks.

It took a bit of gut logic, as Lutz likes to say, to actually make the GM system work. Or, at least, begin to, based on some of the company's most recent products.

Now, some readers might be ready to hit the "Comment" button about now to remind me that there are some great examples of auto companies achieving truly creative results without a maverick managing the rodeo. BMW is perhaps the most immediate example, though former chief of design Chris Bangle certainly fits into the category, and his protégé, Adrian van Hooydonk – who actually penned some of BMW's most controversial designs – continues his legacy.

To see how successful a maverick can be in a modern corporation, one only needs to look as far as Palo Alto, California, where Steve Jobs has indelibly imprinted his personality on Apple. A brief run with classic corporate management types nearly sank the company, and Jobs' return after his battle with liver failure has given the tech firm more of a creative flow than ever.

With Lutz's retirement, I said earlier, there really aren't any of the classic mavericks left. I might have to amend that. Ford's Alan Mulally, it could be argued, has taken on the role of maverick, despite his traditional business background. The former Boeing executive has effectively jettisoned the business-as-usual approach questioning virtually all the basic assumptions of the Ford system. His demeanor may be MBA, but his approach has been more creatively disruptive.

The real automotive mavericks may still exist though, as has often been the case, outside the industry mainstream. There's Elon Musk, the tech entrepreneur who is using his PayPal fortune to both push into orbit – with SpaceX – and into the world of electrification, with Tesla Motors, not so coincidentally based in Palo Alto. Fisker Automotive's designer-cum-corporate exec, Henrik Fisker, arguably also fits the description.

But some of the most intriguing examples of maverick thinking can be found in China. There's Wang Chuanfu, for one, the chairman of BYD. How many folks would have the audacity to try to turn one of the world's biggest battery companies into a major automotive player? Another example is Li Shufu, chairman and founder of Geely, the Chinese carmaker that just purchased Volvo.

One could argue that these are examples of hubris, rather than maverick thinking. And, indeed, the two are not always all that different, especially when it comes to believing that risks are worth taking.

When he retires at the beginning of the month, Bob Lutz will leave a noticeable gap in the GM org chart, as well as in the broader industry. Whether there will be others willing and able to step in remains to be seen, but despite the conservative nature of big money, there will always be an opportunity for a maverick to step in and change the game.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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