Hot Stocks: GM's Robert Lutz to Retire

General Motors Co.'s "Maximum Bob" has apparently reached his vanishing point.

General Motors Vice Chairman Robert A. "Bob" Lutz will retire from the embattled carmaker effective May 1, the executive confirmed yesterday (Wednesday). Lutz had been serving as a senior adviser to Edward E. "Ed" Whitacre Jr., GM's chairman and chief executive officer.

The move comes just one day after GM announced another shake-up in the North American unit that's supposed to be heading the company's overhaul.

"I can depart with equanimity, because the concept I have been pushing these nine years is 'Only a focus of absolute product superiority will enable the company to reach its other goals'," Lutz said in an e-mail sent to news outlets from the Geneva Auto Show. "This has now been integrated into the very fabric of the company, and is the direction set by Ed Whitacre."

Quipped Lutz, now 78: "I now truly feel I achieved what I set out to do. And this ain't exactly 'early retirement,' is it?"

Change in Plans

Lutz had originally planned to retire from an operational job at GM last April - he was serving as vice chairman of the automaker's global product development at the time - to move into an advisory position. His plan was to then step away from that role and retire at the end of the year.

Lutz postponed his retirement to head General Motors' branding-and-marketing efforts under former CEO Fritz Henderson after the company emerged from federal bankruptcy protection in July. But when Henderson was ousted by the GM board and replaced by Whitacre, Lutz's role was visibly diminished, industry observers say. Whitacre, a former AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) executive, had been brought in by the Obama administration.

A former Marine Corps fighter pilot who enjoyed cigars and candid talk, Lutz was an auto-industry veteran whose outspokenness and larger-than-life personality earned him the nickname "Maximum Bob." Lutz collects classic cars, motorcycles and even military jets. He has repeatedly ridiculed the whole concept of global warming, and attracted the undying enmity of environmentalists when he said that the entire issue was "a total crock of s**t."

Lutz is one of the few top executives to have held down key positions at each of the companies that once comprised America's "Big Three" - Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), Chrysler Group LLC and GM. He also worked for BMW AG.

In fact, the executive's experiences at Chrysler formed the basis for his management-and-leadership book, "Guts: The Seven Laws of Business that Made Chrysler the World's Hottest Car Company." The dust jack describes the book as "a maverick's primer on the business philosophy that revolutionized Chrysler ."

For most of his career, Lutz was an enthusiastic backer of development projects that would result in high-horsepower muscle cars. At Chrysler, for instance, he oversaw the development of the Dodge Viper, a 10-cylinder "supercar" whose early 1990s debut gave the struggling carmaker a badly needed boost in visibility. At GM in 2008, Lutz was in charge when the company introduced the Corvette ZR1, a supercharged tire-shredder with a 640-horsepower motor and a top speed of more than 200 miles per hour.

At GM, however, Lutz's biggest contribution may end up being the development of the decidedly un- Viper-like Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that can reportedly travel up to 40 miles on its electric motor - and that's capable of plug-in recharging. The Volt, slated for a roll out later this year, has been a keystone of GM's self-makeover efforts, and will help determine whether those efforts succeed - or fail.

If the Volt succeeds, GM will be able to compete in the new-but-fast-growing hybrid auto market. But the program has received its share of criticism from experts and pundits for reported shortcomings - not the least of which is the fact that GM is showing up late for the hybrid party.

Back in 2006, Lutz assembled a team of engineers and designers to develop a "concept" version of the Volt, which had its coming-out party at the 2007 Detroit auto show.

The project's goal was to show that GM could create an environmentally friendly "halo car" - fleet flagship - that could take on the prestigious and market-leading Prius hybrid built and sold by Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE ADR: TM).

Accomplishment-Filled Career

Lutz began his career at GM in 1963, where he worked in both sales and marketing. After holding executive-level posts at both Ford and BMW, he joined Chrysler, holding down key positions in the late 1980s and through much of the 1990s. He headed such essential efforts as sales, marketing, product-development and even production. While Lutz was at Chrysler, the carmaker introduced the rakish Ram pickup-truck line, grabbing market share away from perennial top dog Ford.

Then came the return to General Motors. Hired by former GM CEO Rick Wagoner in 2001, Lutz revitalized GM's product-development efforts - with observable results. Lutz pushed the company to upgrade car interiors, realizing that the company's offerings stacked up poorly when compared to counterpart cars built by Japan's top automakers. The executive also supercharged the programs that yielded the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS, cars that are now top sellers - as well as top-rated symbols of the products that represent the "New GM."

Late last month, Whitacre appointed former investment banker Stephen Girsky to the role of special advisor and vice chairman in charge of corporate strategy, a role that led many observers to speculate that Lutz's second tour with GM would soon come to a close.

In another e-mail, Lutz told journalists that he has no regrets.

"My work is done here ... so I can retire in peace," he said.

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