I was the staff vice president of NADA when I first met Lee Iacocca. My first impression: What a sales guy!
We were sitting in the green room behind the stage in San Francisco where Lee was about to address the annual NADA convention general session. As he shuffled his speech deck he asked how many people were in the audience. I told him the hall held about 5,500 people but it was standing-room-only so he could expect about 6,000 -- any more would get the hall shut down by the fire marshal. He walked onstage a minute later, took off his watch dramatically, stared out into the crowd and announced, "I have just been told by J Ferron that over 8,000 dealers are in this room today, an all-time NADA record crowd!" He proceeded to give a rip-roaring speech and got a standing ovation from all (8,000!) filling the hall.
Lee, of course, was shocked when he was fired by Henry Ford II. But the event had some stage setting that should be part of Lee's and Henry Ford II's history.
A young chief of Ford powertrain and transmissions, who happens to be a friend of mine, was asked by Ford to deliver a detailed review of future engines to the Ford board of directors on July 13, 1978. The request was unusual because of the length of the presentation -- complete with mockups and everything -- but also because Mr. Ford told Hank Nickol to "take it slow." Mr. Ford also told Hank not to worry if he left the presentation after he introduced him. During that presentation Mr. Ford left the room and fired Lee. For Hank's part, the engine presentation went well, but he didn't hear about Lee's firing until he got home that night.
Lee was furious at NADA another time he was going to address the annual convention, this time in Las Vegas. He planned to announce that all future Chrysler franchise agreements would include a clause requiring mandatory arbitration on disputes with dealers. Needless to say, NADA opposed this vehemently. Its general counsel, Walt Huizenga, slipped a letter under the door of Lee's suite stating that any announcement about mandatory arbitration would trigger lawsuits backed by NADA in every state with a dealer manufacturer licensing law -- 49 at the time. Lee dropped that part of the speech, but we were told his blood pressure soared.
But Lee had a sense of humor as large as any cigar he chomped.
At the Fairmont Hotel presidential suite in San Francisco and surrounded by NADA officers, Lee noted that his family dog was fidgety and needed relief. He designated one of the dozen or so senior Chrysler executives in his ever-present entourage to take the dog down the elevator and outside.
Each time an executive returned with the dog Lee wanted to know if the dog "had done her business." Three times he was told, no. He pressed where the executives were walking the pet and was told that they all crossed the street in front of the hotel and walked around the grass at the Flood Mansion.
Lee cracked, "You all might be great car guys but you can't tell the difference between a city dog and a country one. My dog needs to get relief on pavement to be comfortable, not grass!"
J Ferron is director of strategic development at Automotive News and director of judging for the Automotive News PACE Awards.