Lutz likes to nurture in-house talent

So who’s on Lutz’s list?

That’s the burning question among automotive designers as General Motors prepares to fill its top design post. One retired design executive who recently talked with Robert Lutz, GM’s vice chairman for product development, discounts talk that GM could hire an outside designer to replace Wayne Cherry, who retires next September.

The executive said GM’s design talent has impressed Lutz since joining the company Sept. 1.

“Just based on what Bob said to me, he doesn’t think that he has to go outside looking for people,” the designer said. “He has a lot of talent in-house.”

The designer noted that Lutz revived Chrysler design in the 1990s by unleashing the creativity of the existing staff. “Bob said at Chrysler, ‘I’ve got the same designers that did the K car doing all this neat stuff now.’ He just gave them the freedom and latitude — that’s his style.”

Lutz would not discuss the question of a successor to Cherry, saying only that as policy GM won’t discuss the retirement plans of a senior executive before the executive makes them public.

But Lutz says he found GM design in an unusually weak role, compared with design’s clout at other auto companies at which he has worked.

“Design needs to be put back in its rightful role as an extremely influential contributor to the overall look and feel of a car,” he said.

Lutz’s history hasn’t prevented speculation about an array of external and internal candidates to succeed Cherry. And, as a current design manager at a rival automaker notes, candidates’ denial of interest at this point doesn’t mean much.

“It’s not close enough to election day, maybe,” he said. “In the automotive industry, this is kind of like being president of the United States — at least in the design world.”

Here are some possibilities mentioned by design sources:

  • Tom Gale, 58, retired head of design for the Chrysler group. Gale is the external candidate mentioned most often. In fact, Cherry’s predecessor, Chuck Jordan, touted him in an Aug. 20 letter to Automotive News. But Gale maintains an office at DaimlerChrysler, where he works as a part-time consultant. And Chrysler officials said he had to be dissuaded from retiring two years before his departure late last year, making his desire to resume full-time work questionable.

  • Ed Welburn, 49, executive director of GM Design. Several sources mentioned Welburn as an internal candidate. Currently he oversees development of the 2002 crop of GM concept cars. Formerly he was director of the GM Brand Character Center.

  • Anne Asensio, 39, director of GM brand character development. GM made waves in May 2000 by hiring Asensio away from Renault SA, where she won acclaim for designing the popular Megane Scenic minivan and the Clio and Twingo cars. Some observers question whether her short tenure has given her enough corporate savvy — and allies — for the post.

  • Martin Smith, 51, chief designer for Adam Opel AG. Smith was chief interior designer for Audi, where his work included the original Audi Quattro. More recently, he co-designed the two-seat Opel Speedster.

  • Stewart Reed, 54, independent designer. Reed set up a design department for Prince Corp. in Holland, Mich., before Johnson Controls Inc. acquired Prince. He also has worked in the Toyota and Chrysler advanced design studios. Reed now works out of his own studio in western Michigan. He is notable for having designed the 2001 Cunningham C-7 show car — for a client named Bob Lutz.

  • J Mays, 47, Ford Motor Co. design chief. Though Mays is rumored to have been approached by GM, most industry sources say he’s not likely to jump. But he understands the pressure and politics of a top automotive design job and is an attention-getting company spokesman. The question may be: Have Ford’s woes shaken Mays’ loyalty?

  • Chris Bangle, 44, head of design for BMW. Bangle’s name surfaced this summer in a flurry of rumors that he might be talking to GM. But GM officials were quick to squelch the talk — and knock some of Bangle’s recent work in the process. Bangle, incidentally, once worked for Adam Opel AG, a GM subsidiary.
  • You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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