Editorial by Automotive News Europe Editor Richard Johnson
FORMER CHRYSLER Chairman and Ford President Lee Iacocca says he would do almost anything to help Chrysler in America. Jurgen Schrempp seemed interested in the idea, strung him along for a while and then froze him out. Now Iacocca is so angry he can hardly see straight.
Lee Iacocca is a legend in America and pretty well known in Europe, too. He saved Chrysler twice, and accomplished much else during his long career. He's probably the most interesting executive produced by the auto industry in the second half of the 20th century.
At first, not letting Iacocca back in at Chrysler seemed like another Schrempp faux pas - another sign of insensitivity to Americans. He snubbed super-patriotic, man of the people Lee Iacocca.
In fact, Schrempp did exactly the right thing. He doesn't need Iacocca to complicate Chrysler.
The industry thinks it has some brutal executives today - men like Schrempp, for instance. Well, you never saw one like Iacocca. He was the bloodthirstiest buccaneer that sailed.
Let Lee Iacocca back in as an 'advisor' or a 'spokesman' or a 'morale-builder?' Give him a role to play? It would be too dangerous. In fact, it would be like Evel Knievel driving a motorcycle at 90mph toward Dead Man's Curve on a rainy night.
Lee Iacocca thinks about Lee Iacocca first. Within days he would be on Wall Street trying to organize a spin off. And Lee wouldn't just plot to take over Chrysler, he'd try to take over DAIMLERChrysler.
You think you've seen ambition? You haven't seen ambition like Lee Iacocca's.
It doesn't matter that he's 77. It wouldn't matter if he were 87.
Jurgen Schrempp is an astute man, so astute that he left Lee Iacocca right where he found him.
Chrysler doesn't need Iacocca. And Schrempp certainly doesn't need the aggravation. The kind of mini-storm created by Iacocca's wide-ranging, mud-splattering newspaper interview last month would happen once a week if Lee put his Chrysler jersey back on.
Iacocca tried to force his way back into Chrysler via Kirk Kerkorian's ridiculous 1995 takeover attempt. Seventeen years earlier he forgot whose name was on the building at Ford and got himself fired. Unlike Jacques Nasser, Iacocca wasn't doing a bad job with the Ford business. He was just too calculating and pushy.
True, his personal ambition powered Chrysler's recovery. But at the wrong time and place it can harm a company.
Bob Lutz's extraordinary septuagenarian comeback at GM must make a big impression on Iacocca. Lee still thinks he can strap on the guns and climb back into the saddle.
Of course, Iacocca and Schrempp in the same camp would be great entertainment. It would be a clash of titans from two generations, like Muhammad Ali coming out of retirement to fight Lennox Lewis.
Both have used power mercilessly to get rid of potential rivals. Iacocca did it to hundreds of executives. But he himself was the victim in 1978
and now Schrempp has done it to him again.
The DaimlerChrysler boss didn't come right out and reject Iacocca's offer to help. Like Henry Ford II in 1978, he danced around the issue until it became clear what was on his mind.
Sometimes you just don't like somebody.
E-mail Richard Johnson at [email protected]