In May 1999 Wolfgang Reitzle got one of the best jobs in the history of the auto industry. He was asked to run - simultaneously - Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin and Lincoln as chairman of Ford Motor Co.'s new Premier Automotive Group. A year later he got Land Rover, too.
The job fit him perfectly. Reitzle was the force behind every BMW from the 1986 7 series on. If BMW is the strongest automotive brand in the world today, Reitzle deserves much of the credit.
He understands the particulars of prestige cars as well as anyone anywhere. That's why former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser gave him absolute control over more than half of the world's luxury-car brands. Never before has such an organization been created largely because someone was available to run it.
Yet Wolfgang walked away from it all because he didn't like Ford's austerity measures. He didn't like his budgets being cut, and he didn't like his product plans being tampered with.
He also didn't like reporting to Nick Scheele; he didn't like Ford's inside politics; and he didn't fancy moving to Detroit, where a promotion most likely would have taken him.
Everyone knows that Reitzle is a genius. But some of the minor mechanics of his genius are often subject to mysterious little breakdowns. Maybe that's why his career keeps cutting out at key moments.
He has been unlucky. His old boss, former BMW Chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim, blocked Reitzle from taking over Porsche 10 years ago by not letting him out of his contract. Then in 1993 Bernd Pischetsrieder was named von Kuenheim's successor. When Reitzle was passed over again in 1999, he quit BMW. Who could blame him?
But why this time? Why leave Premier Automotive to head Linde AG, a big but boring maker of forklifts and refrigeration equipment? He should have clung to the Premier Automotive job for all he was worth.
Wolfgang's supporters say that Reitzle wants to be a CEO. Fine. So does everyone. But he was better than CEO at Premier Automotive Group. The CEOs of Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Aston Martin reported to him.
It makes you wonder whether Reitzle contributes to his own lousy luck. Ford has to lower its costs, which affects its luxury brands, too. That's the kind of challenge Reitzle was supposed to manage, not run from.
I sure hope Reitzle gets another chance at another great job in the auto business.
He seems positioned for DaimlerChrysler if Juergen Schrempp slips or when Juergen Hubbert retires. Deutsche Bank is a major shareholder in both DaimlerChrysler and Linde, so Reitzle may have been parked until something opens up in Stuttgart.
But in the case of Hubbert's job, the Reitzle camp already is being heard.
Wolfgang would never accept being No. 2, they say.
If that's true, then he should think it over.
As a No. 2, Robert Lutz has been more effective than most No. 1s he's worked for. And with all the consolidation in the industry, what used to be No. 1 jobs are often now No. 2 jobs at best.
Anyway, it's no sure thing that Reitzle would be offered Hubbert's job as head of Mercedes-Benz.
Old Mercedes hands say he can't follow Hubbert because he has never run Mercedes' main Sindelfingen plant. Meanwhile, Dieter Zetsche is in line to succeed Schrempp.
But the important thing here is not what's right for Reitzle but what's right for Premier Automotive's luxury brands. Ford still needs this organization, with or without Wolfgang. Hopefully, Mark Fields' job as the new boss is not to dismantle the Premier Automotive Group.
Premier Automotive has a purpose. Today, we still have the real Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. But if Ford isn't careful, someday we may just have the holograms. Without a luxury-car leader, these brands will trample all over each other. Without a protectorate, the greater good of the larger Ford will overwhelm the individual brands.
It may be happening already. On the question of whether Ford ruined the Jaguar X-Type, the jury has been out for an uncomfortably long time.
Put another way, there is only so much cheese you can take off the pizza before you start to lose customers.