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- Apr 5, 2006
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(Updates with comments from Lutz.)
By Sharon Terlep
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
DETROIT -(Dow Jones)- General Motors Corp. (GM) said Monday that vice chairman and product chief Bob Lutz will retire at year-end after a 46-year career capped by efforts to overhaul GM's much-maligned vehicle lineup.
Lutz, 76, one of the company's most visible leaders, will be succeeded in April as head of global product development by Tom Stephens, who now runs the Powertrain unit.
"It just seemed to be the right time," Lutz said in an email Monday to Dow Jones Newswires. "As they say, 'My work here is [largely] done.'"
GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner hired Lutz in 2001 to improve the look and quality of its car and light truck line-up.
But while his work won design plaudits, it failed to arrest the sales decline that has left the company dependent on U.S. federal aid to stave off bankruptcy.
The move by Lutz to an advisory role comes amid restructuring that has cut off much of the funding to develop new vehicles.
"The fun and excitement have become fairly rare commodities, and others are temperamentally better-suited to dealing with this increasingly regulation- dominated product future," Lutz wrote.
The hiring of Lutz, a former Marine fighter pilot who had served as executive vice president of Chrysler LLC, was considered an unconventional move given Lutz's age and his colorful, high-profile persona.
Lutz-influenced creations, from the made-over Chevrolet Malibu sedan to an entirely new, European-inspired lineup for GM's Saturn brand, won GM critical praise. But they failed to stem GM's dramatic sales slide in the U.S., where sales have fallen 25% since the start of the decade.
He is also the driving force behind the Chevrolet Volt, the auto maker's high- profile attempt to produce a plug-in electric car for the masses.
Lutz's blunt, forceful style has been at times both an asset and a liability to GM. He is widely credited for forcing GM out of entrenched patterns, from skimping on vehicle quality and design to leaning heavily on profit-eroding incentives.
Yet he also has been a lightning rod for critics of Detroit's auto industry, drawing fire last year for declaring global warming a "crock of s---."
Lutz's career included leadership posts at all three Detroit auto makers. He began his automotive career in 1963 at GM, then spent 12 years at Chrysler and served on Ford Motor Co.'s (F) board before returning to GM in 2001.
Many people both in and outside of GM anticipated Lutz would leave the company years ago, as early as 2005. Asking Lutz about his retirement plans became the perennial question for industry insiders, yet Lutz vowed he would stay to see the Chevrolet Volt through.
He said Monday that he intends to continue overseeing the Volt project, but will demure to Stephens as head of GM's product development.
Stephens, currently GM's executive vice president of global powertrain and quality, started at GM as an hourly employee in 1963 and has held a number of executive positions at the auto maker.
In a statement released Monday, GM's Wagoner said Lutz's influence on GM products will be felt for years to come. "Bob Lutz was already a legendary automotive product guy when he rejoined GM in 2001," Wagoner said in the statement. "His 46 years of experience in the global automotive business have been invaluable to us."
Lutz's departure comes a week after Tony Cervone, one of GM's top communications executives, said he is leaving to head corporate communications at United Airlines' parent UAL Corp. (UAUA).
Shares of GM were recently up 1 cent at $2.85 but have lost 90% of their value in the past year.