Why I think Kuzak influenced more at Ford than Lutz did at GM
James B. Treece is industry editor for Automotive News.
On April 1, Raj Nair officially took over as head of Ford Motor Co.'s product development efforts. I want to offer my tribute to the man he replaced this week: Derrick Kuzak.
In my humble opinion, as a product development chief, Kuzak will have a longer lasting influence than General Motors' Bob Lutz.
Many will disagree with me. But Kuzak delivered the goods and changed an automaker in the process. Lutz didn't.
First, give Lutz his due. He turned around decades of dowdy styling at GM, in particular pushing for a vast improvement in GM's interiors. He championed the car guys in a culture that had kowtowed to the bean counters for too long, personally giving engineers the backing to push for the improvements they knew GM's cars needed to be competitive. And when Lutz arrived, GM's product development team was in worse shape, with less clout in the executive suites, than Ford's was when Kuzak took charge there.
But Lutz had his flaws.
He was a one-man show. Is there any evidence that Lutz institutionalized the changes he championed? Or did he achieve his victories by striding into a room and personally demanding changes? The latter may be effective, but it doesn't help the carmaker in the long run.
He largely left the task of simplifying GM's global product development processes to successor Mary Barra. Her marching orders -- save money by eliminating duplication, end the stop-start approach that has bedeviled GM's product development, and so on -- amount to a to-do list that Lutz didn't accomplish. The billions of dollars wasted by GM's global product development processes wasn't the main cause of GM's bankruptcy. GM's failure was due to death by a thousand cuts. But GM's product development problems, even after years of Lutz's leadership, were one of the knives.
He was guilty of the occasional boondoggle. Exhibit A: the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. The Solstice was an ego-stroking car; Lutz put out a low-slung two seater at every automaker he worked for, whether the automaker needed one or not. The Sky? Well, the Pontiac volume wasn't going to be enough to justify the project, so, hey, let's give one to Saturn, even if it fits the Saturn brand no better than the long-gone SVX fit the Subaru brand.
I usually disagree with Chevrolet dealers who say that money spent on Saturn should have been spent on their brand, but in this case, they're right. Every penny spent on the Saturn Sky would have been better used on the Corvette. (Or on the RAV4-fighter Saturn needed and deserved.)
In contrast, here are the arguments for saying Kuzak delivered more as product development chief both during his tenure and into the future.
The Kuzak case
1. Kuzak took a faction-ridden product development team that duplicated efforts repeatedly and forced it to become a single, global effort.
His accomplishment is even more astounding because Ford had been trying to do that for roughly 30 years with no success.
Press releases for Ford's original "world car," the 1980 Escort, showed it covered by a tarp made up of national flags, to emphasize that it was the product of a global effort. But it wasn't. European and American engineers insisted the blueprints had to be tweaked here, then there and there and there, to fit their markets. When they finished, the U.S. and European versions of the Escort shared a single water pump. Every other part was distinct, a duplication of effort that saved white-collar jobs but cost millions.
Ford tried and failed again with the 1994 European Ford Mondeo and 1995 American Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique. Other half-hearted efforts followed.
Kuzak changed that. The 2011 Ford Focus sold in Europe shares 90 percent of its parts with its U.S. cousin. Savings: enormous.
2. He did it without ceding control to shortsighted bean counters. Nobody's accusing Ford's recent offerings of being styling or performance duds. Well, he does have to answer for the Ford Flex. But the EcoBoost engine balances that out.
3. With EcoBoost, Kuzak delivered fuel-saving technology when consumers wanted it in a package that also delivered the pep and torque they didn't want to give up. Ford's car and truck customers are happy with their engines and their fuel economy. The technology is not fancy, but by getting there first, Kuzak put Ford ahead of its rivals.
4. Kuzak also institutionalized the changes. The global Fusion shows that the Focus wasn't a one-hit wonder. The changes he put in place will continue to propel Ford forward.
You can say Kuzak succeeded because he was implementing change that the top dog, CEO Alan Mulally, wanted and supported. But Don Petersen when he was CEO also had supported getting the U.S. and European engineers to work together, and he fell short.
Kuzak was the engineering boss, the executive on the front line, who made it happen.
You can reach James B. Treece at firstname.lastname@example.org.