Corvette fans the world over are eulogizing former Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins as the man who saved the famous high-performance sports car from the trash heap in the 1990s.
But to Perkins, who died Dec. 28 at age 83, Corvette was only one chapter in a life story that saw a young Chevrolet fan rise to run the company, take off to help Toyota start Lexus, come home to Chevy and then steer America's largest private dealership group.
As with all bosses, Perkins faced the Machiavellian dilemma of whether it's better to be loved or feared by employees.
He chose the love approach.
The folksy, Texas-born Perkins, fond of wearing cowboy boots with his business suits, made it his practice to treat people with respect and empower them to do their best work. People who were motivated and content in their work, he believed, would take pride in making their cars and their brand excel.
He led by example. In 1991, Chevrolet race car driver Tom Kendall broke both legs in a crash at Watkins Glen, N.Y. After weeks of rehab in Indiana, Kendall was ready to go home to California, but because of his injuries, he couldn't fly commercial airlines.
"I told Jim that Tom needed a way home and asked if he had a suggestion," Dick Amacher, former GM racing engineer, wrote in a tribute. "He smiled and said, 'I think I need to fly out to California for a dealer meeting. I'll call for the GM Gulfstream.' Jim and I flew to Indianapolis where an ambulance was waiting with Tom, his fiancee, Carolyn, and his mom. The medics lifted Tom on board and we took off for Burbank."
It would not be the only time in his career Perkins bent a company rule for a more noble outcome.
"That's just who Jim was," Amacher wrote. "He never hesitated to do what was right for people. I don't know a person at GM that did not love him and love to be in his company."