GRUYERES, Switzerland -- There actually were two surprises Wednesday, the day General Motors Co. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz unexpectedly announced his retirement here in Switzerland, his birthplace 78 years ago.
Bob received the first surprise, we got the second.
For Bob, the surprise came during a morning briefing on the day's activities. We had traveled to Geneva to attend the motor show. Drive time was slated Wednesday in the Chevrolet Cruze and Spark, cars destined for U.S. sale.
Along the route, we would stop at the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyeres, followed by lunch.
Bob interrupted: “He's my first wife's cousin.” Everyone laughed, not believing the story. “He is famous, he is terrific, and I know him well.
“He is the guy who did the movie Aliens. He actually did the alien creatures, a synthesis of organic shapes and elements combined with machine precision. It is hard to tell where the machine ends and the organism begins.” His artwork “is all airbrush, [mostly] black and white.”
Bob owns Giger artworks, but he never had visited the museum. He had no idea until that minute that the museum was our destination. GM communications had no idea Bob knew Giger.
Hours later, at the museum, Bob transformed into tour guide: “He is the best in the world at what he does.”
The small, beautiful village of Gruyeres rests on a plateau. Two castles sit there. The Alps fill the sky. The setting is beautiful.
We walked to Le Chalet de Gruyeres -- a small restaurant, maybe 15 tables, a few steps from the museum. Earlier, I had requested time to interview Bob. But the setting for a journalist was less than ideal, especially for a scribe looking for a scoop. All of us were seated at a long, narrow table.
During lunch, he spoke about the demise of Pontiac, past members of GM's management team, past leadership at Chrysler and the book he is writing. Bob and I were sitting at the far end of the table.
Halfway through the lunch, in a low tone, I raised the topic of retirement.
Bob turned his head in my direction and in a low tone said, “Rick, I don't want you to be blindsided. Tomorrow I will announce I am retiring. The story is embargoed until 10 a.m. tomorrow.”
Bob continued, his voice grew louder, conversational. Within seconds, other journalists at the table caught the news, began texting his comments back to the States.
I was the last journalist granted time with Bob. Klaus-Peter Martin, who heads Chevrolet communications, tried to create a buffer of sorts from the other journalists, telling them this was my exclusive time with Lutz.
As Bob dipped his bread into the cheese fondue, he talked about his accomplishments, the GM management team, GM's future. This portion of the Q&A session lasted about 15 minutes. Then it was time to head to the cars. It was late, after 3 p.m.
Martin stood up: “All of you listened to the conversation that was going on. Bob said something off the record that I would like all of you to respect. That was, his retirement would be announced tomorrow.”
Bob interrupted, his fingers pushing the buttons on his mobile phone.
“If you all promise to respect it, I will read the announcement” that will be released Wednesday. He read the release off the cell phone screen.
“I drafted most of that. I gave then the stuff that I wanted to say.”
Bob continued: “There is something that gets old about getting up at 4:30 a.m. And another thing, at some point, even yesterday, walking the show, and maybe it was because so many of the design concepts were so depressing (the group laughed), I really thought, how much longer do I want to keep doing the same thing, the same thing. It is really time to go. It really is.”
The group burst into applause. Laughing, Bob added:
“Early retirement is finally here.”