You could call Derrick Kuzak the anti-Bob Lutz.
Lutz, the former Chrysler and then General Motors product guru, is brash, outspoken and flamboyant. Kuzak, Ford Motor Co.'s product development chief, is soft-spoken, reserved and self-effacing. But as Kuzak, 60, prepares to retire April 1, you could argue that his impact on his company's product lineup has been equal to that of his higher-decibel GM counterpart.
In 2003, I watched Kuzak step awkwardly before hundreds of journalists at the Frankfurt auto show to introduce the Ford Visos concept car. Kuzak, then product development chief for Ford of Europe, normally wouldn't have handled the global intro that day. The job should have fallen to Martin Leach, who had been president of Ford of Europe until he was suddenly ousted the month before.
Being somewhat timid myself, I felt sympathy for this relatively unknown, shy guy getting thrown to the media wolf pack that day. His voice seemed to tremble a little at first, but he composed himself and the press conference went off without a hitch.
Kuzak has always been much more at home toiling away over reams of documents within the confines of Ford's product development center or taking cars around the test track. But he grew tremendously in the public performance aspects that his job required as he ascended the ladder to Ford's top product development job.
In November, I spoke with Kuzak at the Los Angeles Auto Show after my reassignment to the Ford beat following a seven-year absence. He graciously welcomed me back and then impressed me with his fluency in all aspects of Ford's business, whether the subject was paddle-shift transmissions, dealerships, advertising strategy or finance.
At the Detroit auto show in January, Kuzak took the stage to update more than 100 analysts and journalists on Ford's global One Ford product plan. His command of the material -- a reflection of his legendary workaholic hours -- was such that an uninitiated observer might have thought he was the CEO.
When Kuzak returned to Detroit after his stint in Europe, Ford's lineup was still dominated by SUVs and pickups. The F-series pickup is still Ford's biggest seller, but thanks to Kuzak's efforts, a new generation of fuel-efficient, technology-laden, Eurostyled vehicles is taking over Ford's North American showrooms. They include the Explorer, Focus, Fiesta and the forthcoming 2013 Escape and Fusion. The stunning 2013 Fusion mid-sized sedan could be his crowning achievement, a gauntlet thrown down to competitors.
Kuzak did none of that on his own. Nor did he create the One Ford strategy. His boss, CEO Alan Mulally, did that. What Kuzak did was create an environment in which talented individuals could flourish and execute the strategy.
Nick Scheele, former Ford COO, says: "He was somebody who everybody who worked for him liked. He was never an overlord or overbearing."
Chris Lemley, president of Sentry Auto Group, a Ford-Lincoln-Mazda dealership group in the Boston area, says of Kuzak: "I will never forget, shortly after meeting him, hearing him apologize to a group of dealers for the company having produced a poorly designed key fob. When you are both detail-oriented enough at his level to pay attention to how a key fob is designed and humble enough to admit when you fall short, you can and will do great things."
Ford is now rolling out a wave of new vehicles around the globe developed by Kuzak's teams. Every one of them will bear the stamp of this quiet, extraordinarily diligent man.