Former colleagues, politicians and friends paid respects to Lee Iacocca and his family Tuesday in suburban Detroit and remembered how the former Chrysler chairman and CEO provided strong leadership when it was needed most.
An engineer turned marketing genius, Iacocca conceived the Ford Mustang and stewarded Chrysler’s unprecedented U.S. rescue in the1980s. Iacocca, a former president of Ford Motor Co. before taking the reins at Chrysler in the late 1970s, died July 2 at the age of 94.
Former Michigan Governor James Blanchard, among those attending visitation services, said Iacocca was not simply a leader of the automotive industry but a “social philosopher,” with a strong influence in politics.
“He was quite a politician in his own way,” Blanchard recalled. “He helped save thousands of jobs in the United States, in Michigan and Detroit.”
Iacocca lobbied Congress and President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and 1980 for a $ 1.5 billion loan guarantee to save Chrysler. Blanchard helped sponsor the deal as a congressman. Chrysler came up with $ 2 billion in cost reductions in return and Iacocca slashed his own salary to $ 1.
“The pensions, jobs and families hanging in the balance, and Lee was brilliant,” Blanchard said. “Most CEOs flop when they appear in front of Congress. They’re tongue tied. They’re not used to anyone questioning them. They don’t have a sense of public, a sense of history. Lee had all of that and then some. He was not just a leader for 1979 … he was a leader that we need now.”
Bob Lutz, a president and vice chairman of Chrysler under Iacocca, admired the former CEO’s leadership style. The two had a rocky relationship and Iacocca stunned the auto industry when he tapped General Motors executive Bob Eaton to become Chrysler’s next chairman, instead of Lutz.
“The straight talk, the willingness to tell the truth as he saw it, never mind if it alienates some people or not,” Lutz said of Iacocca on Tuesday. “A leader also has to be strong, which means that at times he or she has to do things that are not popular that hurt some of the people like closing plants [letting people go] … He sometimes had ideas about what to do next that nobody agreed with. Not his staff, not the lawyers, not the finance people and he said we’re going to do it anyway.”
Lutz said many unpopular ideas, not just products, put Iacocca in the position to change the landscape of the auto industry.
“The thing that transformed Chrysler forever was the acquisition of American Motors in 1987,” Lutz said. “Everybody was against it, including myself. We’d just barely returned to financial health. … But we got the Jeep brand.”
“If you have to point to one single act that should make him famous and remembered in corporate America, that’s the one,” said Lutz.
A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. ET Wednesday at St. Hugo of the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Iacocca will be buried at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Mich.