Iacocca Makes a Hero's Return

June 27, 2008
We can only wonder what went through the mind of Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Chrysler LLC, as he watched his predecessor, Lee Iacocca, make a triumphant return yesterday. Faced with the sharpest downturn the U.S. maker has seen in decades, Nardelli welcomed the hero who had saved Chrysler - twice - during his long reign in the executive suite.

It was, for Iacocca, a sweet comeback. After all, the man whose name many spelled with the mnemonic "I Am Chairman of Chrysler Corp. Always," had left under a cloud, pushed out by an increasingly resistant board of directors. Iacocca then made an ill-conceived link-up with Chrysler's maverick investor, Kirk Kerkorian, being all but written out of the company's history books when the reclusive billionaire's takeover attempt collapsed.

All was forgotten and forgiven, as 3,000 Chrysler employees, including Nardelli and Vice Chairman Jim Press, hailed the 83-year-old Iacocca. But despite the celebrations, it was clear that no one could completely forget the realities of the world outside, where overall car sales are plunging, and Chrysler's, in particular, are collapsing. But keeping with the upbeat, if plain-speaking style that he had used to push Chrysler back from the brink - a style that made him an international folk hero - Iacocca insisted failure is not an option.

"Everyone is despondent because the market is crashing," he said, but, "we'll come back. Remember, the sun always comes out."

Iacocca's first big test at Chrysler came in the wake of the last big oil shock, so one can only imagine the conversations that took place before and after the celebration at the automaker's headquarters, in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Even if the proud Nardelli wasn't going to ask, anyone who's known Iacocca will tell you the octogenarian legend would have offered plenty of his own ideas about how to turn things around.

The two men have dramatically different management styles and personalities. Iacocca, self-made son of Italian immigrants, is the consummate car salesman. The more taciturn Nardelli, also of Italian descent, was schooled under another business legend, GE's Jack Welch, and plays by the charts and numbers, rather than shooting from the lip.

From the public eye, the difference can be described in telegenic terms. Nardelli is a fair speaker, but one who doesn't go out of his way to stand in the spotlight. Iacocca, on the other hand, craves the camera, and the camera loves him, even today in his dotage. During his years with Chrysler, he starred in close to 100 commercials, and Nardelli reminded his audience of that fact when he started quoting one of the former executive's most famous tag lines. "If you can find a better car..." he began. "Buy it," screamed out a Chrysler worker, in the audience.

Now, if the automaker can only find a way to drum up that level of enthusiasm among the public.

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