PARIS - Robert Eaton, get ready for the shock of your life. Those who have done it say there is nothing more deflating than giving up your job as head of a giant car company.
But former auto company leaders somehow survive. When Bernd Pischetsrieder was fired as head of BMW 11 months ago, some industry observers thought they had heard the last of him. Not true. Pischetsrieder is back as a senior executive at Volkswagen. He may even become a chief executive again.
Ordinarily, former auto bosses never recapture the power and glory and sheer excitement of running a car manufacturer.
Some have a hard time adjusting to life out of the limelight. Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler Corp. chairman, tried to orchestrate a takeover of the company he left. Now he sells electric bicycles.
At European auto shows, former CEOs are sometimes spotted in the shadows. Former Mercedes-Benz chief Helmut Werner, ex-Audi boss Franz-Josef Kortum, or even longtime PSA/Peugeot-Citroen Chairman Jacques Calvet sometimes visit the show floor. They may have a personal assistant in tow, but no entourage.
Ex-CEOs usually become invisible - going from ubiquitous to anonymous. But many go on to interesting new careers. Soren Gyll, who stepped down as chief of AB Volvo three years ago, now runs the company that makes Rogaine, the anti-baldness treatment.
But even those who land big jobs in other sectors still feel like they are in the second act of a one-act drama, or so many of them say. Arno Bohn spent only a couple of years running Porsche in the early 1990s, then went on to a successful career at General Electric Europe. But he is probably still introduced at cocktail parties as the former head of Porsche.
A few have become more famous after leaving the car business - though not always for the right reasons. Geoffrey Robinson, who ran Jaguar for a time in the 1970s, has been in the news lately in the United Kingdom. Britain's former Paymaster General faces allegations of accounting irregularities at TransTech, an engineering company he founded. The company recently collapsed.
Some say leaving the top job at a car company is like leaving public office. Indeed, more than a few contemplate running for office once through with autos. Calvet, for instance, has maintained his influence in the French establishment since leaving PSA in October 1997. He was expected to run in the European Parliament elections last June. He didn't, but he is now thinking of starting his political career as a candidate in Paris municipal elections in 2001.
CALVET'S NEW LIFE
Meanwhile, Calvet is an active board member in several companies, including the French bank Societe Generale, retailers Galeries Lafayette and Groupe Andre and the insurance giant Axa. He is an adviser to Banque de France - the French central bank - and the German insurer Allianz.
'To be a good board member is now a real job,' he said.
He said enjoys the work.
Calvet was a key figure last summer in the battle that followed Banque Nationale de Paris' attempt to seize control of Societe Generale. His perspective was unique. Though a member of the Societe Generale board, he was BNP's chairman before joining Peugeot. He advised Societe Generale CEO Daniel Bouton to resist the takeover that eventually failed.
Calvet also stays in touch with Pierre Peugeot, the head of PSA's supervisory board and Peugeot family leader, despite some past disagreements between the two men.
'When you have touched the auto industry, you cannot turn your back on it,' Calvet said.
Among his occupations, Calvet also finds some time to write books. In 1998, he published a criticism of France's policy toward the European Union following the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties. It was titled The Great Collapse: How To Prevent It.
He won't say much about his next book, to be published this year. But Calvet likely will speak plainly about French politics - just one year before municipal elections and two years before the presidential campaign.