Zarrella: GM has room for superstar Lutz

Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America, says he happily will share the limelight with new product czar Robert Lutz.

Product Editor Rick Kranz interviewed Zarrella in Monterey, Calif., on Aug. 18. The following is an edited transcript.

How do you define Bob Lutz’s marching orders?

To get into our product portfolio and bring his unique sense of intuition into what works and what doesn’t work.

For the last two or three years, we have been trying to bring a sense of balance to the tradeoffs you make in product programs between engineering, manufacturing and design, and trying to shift that balance more toward design.

If you go back to the early ’90s, given the financial state that General Motors was in, the huge influence of manufacturing and engineering for cost reasons (was on) platform sharing, parts sharing. The tradeoff decisions were “Let’s do what we can afford and get something that’s kind of OK.”

But we need to be able to do things that let designers do what they know how to do. I think Bob Lutz will make it real easy to make that shift and have a big influence in shifting that balance toward design execution.

We have a lot of terrific young talent, both in design and engineering. I think he will serve a very important mentorship role for that young talent and for the leaders of General Motors in the future in design and engineering.

With Lutz on board, who will look at each division and determine that division’s product portfolio?

You guys are always looking for a model that says there’s one guy who makes every decision. That’s not the way General Motors works, and that’s not the way any company works.

There’s a planning process and, because of Bob’s record of success and experience, his voice is probably going to be the loudest in that discussion. There isn’t one guy, whether it is Bob Lutz or anybody else, sitting there and saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do, and you go out and do it.” Companies don’t work that way.

How did you learn that Lutz was joining GM?

Tom Davis (head of product development) told us two years ago that he was going to retire. And I joked that if Tom didn’t say that, he probably would have my job.

For the last year, we have been looking at how to replace Tom, and we had some internal candidates that we were looking at. We decided to start a search. We put a list of potential external candidates together. Rick (Wagoner) went out to see Bob to get his point of view on the external candidates, and basically he said, “How about me?”

Rick called me that night, and said, “What do you think?” The three of us started talking over the course of about three or four weeks, and that’s how fast it happened.

GM has some exciting products coming up in the next two years, such as the Chevy SSR and the Hummer H2. How do you feel about Lutz sharing in the glory if these and other future products that were approved for production before he arrived are hits?

I have very low ego needs. (He laughs.) If it all works, and we start making a helluva lot more money, the market share starts going up, you guys start writing about how great our product is, our stock goes way up and I have a lot more personal wealth, Bob Lutz can have all the headlines he wants. (He laughs).

And you know what, that’s exactly the way we talked about this inside the company.

What has been the reaction within GM to an outsider coming in and shaking up the company?

To say that there’s universal, positive support in the company, that’s not the case. There are differing opinions.

But the majority of opinion is, here’s a guy who accomplished a helluva lot in his career and in an area that can really help us. He’s not running for chairman. He has enough money in his life, he’s not doing this to make money.

He’s doing it because he absolutely loves being involved in the business; he absolutely loves cars. And if he can transfer a small part of his intuition to the people who are going to be leading this part of the business into the future, it’s a plus for us.

If we brought somebody in who was 50 years old, had 12 to 15 years to work and was going to block out big chunks of the organization from moving up, that would be a bigger problem than what we’ve got now.

We’re bringing in kind of a superstar name for a reasonably defined period of time (three years), and I think people are looking forward to it.

I can’t tell you the number of e-mails that I have gotten from young designers and young engineers, and some people who know they are in the line to move up (saying): “This is a great move. We think this really will help us. This will help me personally.”

So there has been some of that talk inside the company, but I have to say the overwhelming point of view inside the company has been that this is really going to be a benefit to GM.

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