Robert Lutz's boss and wife both complain about the amount of time he spends on his BlackBerry. But the General Motors product czar insists he wouldn't be without the wireless communications device."It's an intimate part of my life," Lutz says. "I use it constantly. It's 80 percent professional, 20 percent personal."
Lutz is hardly alone. Handheld devices that provide users with Internet, cell phone and e-mail access have become essential tools for industry leaders. BlackBerry aficionados refer to the devices as "crackberries" because of their addictive quality. Other pocket-sized devices, such as the Palm Treo, offer similar capabilities.
Executives say the wireless devices help them stay connected to work around the clock, from anywhere in the world. The devices allow them to get out of the office and still get their work done. If an on-the-job crisis strikes, they add, the devices keep them accessible.
But even their staunchest champions concede that over-reliance on the devices can discourage face-to-face communication, risking misunderstandings. Executives who are constantly plugged in also can sacrifice their private time and family life.
Lutz exemplifies both the risks and the rewards. He told Automotive News he "really went off the deep end" when he developed a penchant for checking e-mail messages on his BlackBerry during "formal situations" at work.
Lutz's boss, GM CEO Rick Wagoner, cited the problem during his performance review last year. Lutz says Wagoner scolded him: "You're taking this multitasking too far."
'Out the window'
Lutz concedes his wife, Denise, has warned him, half-jokingly, about his BlackBerry use away from the office: "At times my wife says: 'If you don't stop using that and start talking to me, I'm going to grab it and throw it out the window.' "
Lutz, 74, says the mobile technology caused him some initial discomfort. But now, he adds, his BlackBerry is a constant companion. The device removes an executive's tether to his or her laptop computer, he says.
"The beauty is it's completely mobile," Lutz says. "It's a huge time saver."
Lutz says he uses his BlackBerry on his way to airports and during corporate ride-and-drive events. He checks sales data and exchanges e-mail messages with coworkers without disrupting his travel schedule.
"In the old days, that was all dead time," Lutz says. "This way, you're still available. You can still grant approval. You can still argue."
Mark Duhaime, director of information technology infrastructure for Ford Motor Co., says he also is addicted to his BlackBerry. He jokes that his only complaint about the device is that he can't take it into the shower.
"It gives (executives) a huge amount of flexibility and has promoted a good work-life balance," says Duhaime, 47. "We can be connected to the office, but not necessarily be in the office."
That connection, he says, is "liberating as opposed to constraining." His ability to manage an after-hours problem from his home or car allows him to spend more time with his family, he says.
And the device is not nearly as invasive as a cell phone, Duhaime adds. "You're deciding when you read the e-mail, or when you respond," he says.
How often does Duhaime check his BlackBerry? "When I'm in the office, every 15 minutes."
Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., calls himself a "BlackBerry-aholic." But he insists he doesn't allow the device to supplant personal communication with coworkers and customers.
"There's nothing like talking to somebody," Press says. "You can have misunderstandings on the BlackBerry. You have to be careful. People can take things you say different ways, based on the fact it's written."
Still, Press, 59, says the device is essential to his work, and his company's.
"We've become dependent on this kind of instantaneous communication device that allows us to really stay in touch."
Asked what he would do if BlackBerry ever ended its service, he says Toyota would have to find a replacement. That prospect has receded now that BlackBerry's creator, Research In Motion Ltd., of Waterloo, Ontario, has agreed to pay $612.5 million to a U.S. company, NTP Inc., to settle a patent infringement lawsuit.
Despite the advantages conferred by the BlackBerry and similar devices, some holdouts remain. The Chrysler group's public relations chief, Jason Vines, says he resisted the new technology, preferring to rely on his cell phone.
Then, says Vines, 46, his boss - DaimlerChrysler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche - weighed in.
"Dieter said: 'Jason, did you get my messages on your BlackBerry?'," Vines says. "I said: 'I don't have one.' He said: 'You do now.'"
You may e-mail Gail Kachadourian at [email protected]