Friday, June 27, 2008

Chrysler welcomes a hero

Iacocca, 83, returns to rally employees and dealers

Eric Morath / The Detroit News

AUBURN HILLS — As Lee Iacocca stepped into the atrium of the Chrysler Technical Center for an employee rally Thursday, applause and whistles showered down from the more than 3,000 workers standing in the balconies above.

While introducing the legendary former chairman, Chrysler LLC Chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli referenced Iacocca’s famous "If you can find a better car …" only to be interrupted by an employee in the rafters who shouted, "Buy it."

Iacocca, largely credited for saving Chrysler from financial ruin in the early 1980s, received a hero’s welcome.

"We’re here to welcome home Chrysler’s most dynamic leader," Nardelli told the crowd. "He led one of the most dramatic business turnarounds in American history… thanks to you Lee, we’re here today."

Nardelli invited Iacocca, 83, to the automaker’s headquarters to review Chrysler’s operations and to inspire employees who are battling again to resurrect the struggling automaker amid tanking vehicle sales and rising gas prices.

"You’re now an independent company, run with it," Iacocca told the crowd. "Everyone is despondent because the market is crashing …(but) we’ll come back, remember the sun always comes out."

Recounting his time at Chrysler, Iacocca talked about how soaring gas prices, a failing economy and skyrocketing interest rates nearly doomed the automaker, causing him to seek a controversial federally backed bailout. Chrysler, then based in Highland Park, paid back the loan seven years early. An enlarged copy of that final check, for $813,487,500, stood next to the stage Thursday.

Chrysler performs best in a crisis, Iacocca said, expressing his faith in management’s ability to turn the company around.

During the hourlong rally, Iacocca and Nardelli were seated on the ground floor of the cylindrical atrium.

Iacocca dominated the conversation, taking about a half-hour to answer Nardelli’s inquiry about his experiences when he first arrived at Chrysler in 1978. The rally was the first time the two had met.

"There are a lot good of people here that are committed to making this company sing again. It’s maintained its independence after eight years on a German capper," Iacocca said, referring Chrysler’s former owner, Daimler AG.

In bringing the Chrysler icon back to headquarters, Nardelli showed that he’s embracing Iacocca and his all-American mantra. Previous corporate regimes had tumultuous relationships with the former executive, who retired in 1992.

In 1995, Iacocca supported mogul Kirk Kerkorian’s failed bid to take over the automaker, causing strained relations with Chrysler for a decade.

He has returned as a pitchman in recent years, appearing with rapper Snoop Dogg in a TV commercial — a stunt that Iacocca joked made him more recognizable than his tenure as an auto executive. Iacocca, though, gained fame in the mid-1980s with his autobiography, "Iacocca," a national bestseller.

Iacocca likes new models

Earlier in the day, Iacocca walked through Chrysler’s headquarters with a half-dozen top executives.

He said he liked what he saw, especially the next generation of the Chrysler 300 sedan, which Nardelli confirmed would be released, along with the Dodge Charger, for the 2010 or 2011 model year.

Iacocca’s return to the site for the first time since a 1991 dedication will help crystallize a positive legacy for the retired executive, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Although his words may inspire workers, Chrysler may face an even more difficult challenge today than when Iacocca arrived because the auto industry is now global and Chrysler remains a North American company.

There is one major advantage today, however, said John Schenden, a Colorado Chrysler-Jeep dealer who worked under Iacocca as national dealer relations manager. Chrysler has a lot more cash today with its private equity owner, Cerberus Capital Management LP.

"A lot of workers might not know who (Iacocca) was … but he rallied the dealers in Washington to get Congress’ backing," he said. "I don’t know if there would be Chrysler today without Lee."

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Chrysler Chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli, left, welcomes former chairman Lee Iacocca to the Chrysler Technical Center.

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