Lutz launches 1st fusillade

Memo challenges GM's bad habits

Robert Lutz has started making waves at General Motors. And his fellow GM executives are nodding approval.

Lutz, installed as vice chairman for product development on Sept. 1, fired off a memo outlining his "strongly held beliefs" to a small group of those he oversees and other top executives. In it, Lutz critiques several GM truisms, such as faith in consumer research, Harbour Report productivity numbers and telematics.

As the memo cascaded through the company's e-mail system and to the media, GM quickly issued a statement backing Lutz. It said CEO Rick Wagoner wants Lutz to challenge the company's conservative status quo.

"To do that, it is crucial that Bob share his experiences, his philosophy and ideas with his colleagues to stimulate debate and encourage creative thinking," the statement said. "This memo was part of that effort."

A GM spokesman said Lutz's efforts to foster a risk-taking spirit at GM are part of his job and will continue, with Wagoner's blessing.

Future-product changes

At the same time, Lutz has begun roiling GM's product portfolio, say several supplier sources. They say word is trickling out of GM design studios that Lutz is ordering changes for vehicles slated for model year 2004 and beyond.

"My contacts tell me he's really making his mark," one supplier executive said. "I think he's involved in all of the programs."

Supplier executives said they had heard from GM employees of Lutz ordering changes to the GMT900 truck platform, the 2006 model replacement for the full-sized truck platform; the next Corvette, slated to debut in the 2004 or 2005 model year; and a proposed minivan replacement on the slow-moving Lambda platform, tentatively set for a 2005 or 2006 model debut.

The Lambda platform remains in limbo, several suppliers said. It has not been killed, but supplier work has been suspended as GM ponders the viability of the program.

Lambda would include front- and all-wheel-drive sport wagons, minivans and possibly pickups. But proposed Lambda vehicles are reportedly not making their price targets, a major taboo under Lutz.

'Emotional content'

Tom Kowaleski, executive director for product and brand communications, said Lutz is moving to "add emotional content" to GM vehicles. But Lutz won't make changes that would delay or add cost to near-term vehicles for which emissions and safety testing is complete, Kowaleski said.

"When you're further out (from the product launch), that becomes less delicate," he said. "He's not putting any programs at risk."

Lutz is reinforcing the philosophy in his memo in meetings with employees, Kowaleski said. Many of the same points emerged in a meeting with the executive group for the product development, engineering and design staffs.

"That was his message for an hour and a half," Kowaleski said. "It was 15 minutes of him talking and an hour and a half of question-and-answer."

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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