[Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution, a list of earlier revolutions and the author, Entry #1.
Periodically I write a “sense check” to assess whether in the next few years, a revolution in the US is still possible or whether the entire exercise is based on a statistical aberration — i.e., a roughly 50-year cycle between major upheavals in the US. Most recent sense check, Entry #332.]
Thought I would take a break for the second week in a row and write about something not linked to the Revenge Revolution. The topic for this entry, and likely a couple more, was prompted by the death of Lee Iacocca on July 2nd.
Without question, Iacocca was one of the greatest business people of the 20th century. When people talk about Iacocca’s accomplishments, two are usually mentioned: (i) being the father of the Mustang; (ii) leading the turnaround of Chrysler Corporation in the 1980’s. While each is a great accomplishment, there’s more to the story.
From my perspective, two often overlooked major accomplishments are: (i) leading the funding campaign for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Restoring the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island was of great personal interest to him. Iacocca’s parents passed through Ellis Island as immigrants from Italy; (ii) accelerating the implementation of airbags in cars/vans. Most comments about Iacocca and airbags center on his initial efforts to thwart the use of airbags. But he later switched and promoted the use of airbags.
Before going too far with the Iacocca story, I need to explain my relationship with him. We met in his post Chrysler days. He had moved from Michigan to Los Angeles and purchased the rights to an electric bicycle company. Longer term he wanted to expand the bicycle product line to include smallish electric neighborhood vehicles.
The electric bicycle needed a new brand name. He wanted to use “ebike.” The “ebike” name, however, was owned by a company that made electric motorcycles. I happened to be on the board of that company and an investor.
The president of the company, Scott Cronk, and I met to negotiate the rights. After the negotiations, Lee asked if I had a resume. Surprisingly I did, having just left the company that resulted in the move to Charlotte. When reviewing the resume, he ignored my career at GM, or at least never probed about it. What he did comment on was: (i) graduating from MIT, noting that “At least I know you can think,” and (ii) having been an adjunct professor at University of Michigan with the comment, “I like people who teach.”
Then he asked if I would spend two weeks at the company (EV Global Motors), analyze operations and give him an assessment. I thought it might be a fun gig, and if nothing else, great cocktail conversation.
Two weeks later we met in his office. My assessment started with a series of questions, “Why does the company do this? Why does a company own that?” At the end of the third or fourth question, I don’t remember which…and none of which he answered…he asked, “Want to be my CFO?” I said “Yes” and thus started my relationship with a truly interesting man.
There’s no question that Lee’s reputation in the business world for being hard-charging, demanding and disciplined is well-known and well-deserved. But underneath all that bluster and boisterousness — and yes the voice was very loud at times, even in casual conversation — there was the son of immigrant parents who had a rough childhood. Think about growing up as son of Italian immigrant parents in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Just to be clear, let’s not go overboard and start thinking his personal life was like Mother Teresa’s. But we are talking about is an American hero, who like the rest of us, had a real desire for friends and loving relationships.
Fortunately for me, I was working with Lee at an early-stage company. EV Global Motors was not Ford and not Chrysler with large support staffs. As a result, I spent many hours in his office discussing and trying to solve a range of problems. Some of those discussions continued at the house over dinner, wine and, of course, a cigar.
If you want to get an idea what those conversations were like, pick up one of his books. Lee dictated most of the material for the books, which was then edited. My compliments to the editors, who did an excellent job of capturing the tone and rhythm of his comments, although a few likely expletives never made it to print.
At some point in our relationship, I asked Lee why did he think he was so successful. He became head of Ford Division at about age 35, which is a remarkable achievement in the auto industry. His answer was simple, “I made a plan for the week, the month and the calendar quarter. And then I stuck to the plan. Most guys didn’t have a plan and those who did have a plan didn’t necessarily stick with it.”
We used that approach for operating the company. Every Sunday evening we’d chat for maybe 15 minutes and outline issues for the coming week. On Mondays, after I formalized the “assignments” list, we’d have coffee and go over the plan in detail. We also had a rule. If the plan included an assignment that I or someone on the staff was supposed to complete the prior week but hadn’t, then Lee could question me. If he had an assignment that was not completed, then I could question him.
The discussions always included why the assignment hadn’t been completed and what was required to complete it successfully. A task on the list for 3 weeks with no meaningful progress toward completion was likely to be considered irrelevant and scrubbed. This method was simple but highly effective in keeping both of us and the staff on task.
A more interesting story is why Iacocca switched from engineering to the sales department. In the auto industry, that type transfer was unusual at the time, and probably still is. I also made an unusual transfer, moving from corporate finance staff in New York to marketing director at Buick HQ, Flint, MI.
The seminal “career moment” for Iacocca apparently occurred at a drafting table, probably at the River Rouge plant but I’m not certain. Imagine a very large area with a sea of drafting tables. At the very back of this sea of tables is a young Lee Iacocca. Behind his table is a walkway. If you’ve ever been in a Kahn-designed auto plant — vast open areas with large concrete support pillars — you’ll get the picture.
In the walkway behind Lee two men approached and then stopped at his table. One was Henry Ford I and the other was Harvey Firestone. Yes that Ford and that Firestone. After they left, apparently Lee looked at the number of draftsmen ahead of him and who he would have to pass to get promoted. That sea of people convinced him there was a better way to the top of Ford Motor Company. And that better way was joining the field sales staff.
So the Lehigh/Princeton-trained engineer heads off to the sales department and, voila, turns into one of the best automotive sales and marketing guys ever…and head of Ford Division at about age 35. In the next entry or two, I’ll write more about some untold or under-publicized stories. For example, stories about: (i) how Chrysler obtained the base design for the minivan; (ii) how Chrysler had so many unsold K-Cars for so long that in one major storage lot weeds had grown taller than the bumpers; (iii) the red phone on his desk; and the voice. And, oh, that voice. Could it ever carry.