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Lee Iacocca, a charming American auto industry executive and visionary, who gave America the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler Minivan, and was respected and loved for saving Chrysler from going out of business has died at the age of 94.
His daughter, Lia Iacocca Assad said that he died on Tuesday at his home in Bel-Air, California of complications from Parkinson's disease.
Lee started his career in 1946 at Ford Motor Co, and has been graced on covers of the Time, the Newsweek, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine in stories portraying him as the epitome of the American Auto Age. He was one of the first celebrity Chief Executives, and his autobiography made it to the best-seller lists in the mid-1980s.
Iacocca was a fantastic salesman. He encouraged his design teams to be outlandish, and they responded with sports cars that appealed to the hippie generation of the 1960s, fuel-efficient models when petrol prices rocketed in the 1970s, and the first-ever, family-oriented minivan in the 1980s that led its segment in sales for 25 years.
Douglas Fraser, President of the now defunct United Auto Workers Union, had once said, "I don't know an auto executive that I've ever met who has a feel for the American consumer the way he does. He's the greatest communicator who's ever come down the pike in the history of the industry."
Iacocca made a place in business history when he pulled Chrysler (now part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) from the verge of collapse in 1980, gathering support from the United States Congress for USD 1.2 billion in federally guaranteed loans, and persuading suppliers, dealers and union workers to make sacrifices. He also reduced his paycheck to USD 1 a year.
Iacocca was described as a demanding and volatile boss who sometimes fought with fellow executives.
Bud Liebler, Vice President Communications at Chrysler during the 1980s and 1990s said, "He could get mad as hell at you, and once it was done he let it go. He wouldn't stay mad. He liked to bring an issue to its head, get it resolved. You always knew where you stood with him."
Iacocca spoke fairly often of his immigrant roots and how America rewarded hard work. He was mined by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 to be chairman for campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. He took the job as a way of honoring his parents. The campaign raised more than USD 350 million, more than double the initial USD 150 million goal.
Lido Anthony "Lee" Iacocca was born in the Pennsylvania town of Allentown on 24 October 1924. He became freshman class president in high school, but lost re-elections when he stopped shaking his classmates' hands. Iacocca felt that was an important lesson in leadership.
Although an engineer by education, Iacocca realised he was better at marketing after joining Ford. When his district had the worst sales in the country, he came up with a marketing campaign, "56 for '56" - buyers could get a 1956 Ford with a 20% down payment, and three years of monthly installments of USD 56.
The plan worked so well that Ford's shot-caller at the time, Robert McNamara, made it part of Ford's national sales strategy.
Iacocca's relationship with the Mustang was cemented when both Time and Newsweek featured him and the car on their covers in April 1964. Gene Bordinat, Ford's Design Executive at the time, said, "We conceived the car and he pimped it after it was born."
In 1978, Henry Ford II decided it was wise to fire him. Iacocca asked why, and reminded his boss that he helped the company earn record profits of USD 1.8 billion over two years. Mr Ford apparently replied, "Well, sometimes you just don't like somebody."
Iacocca accepted the Presidency of Chrysler within weeks of losing his job at Ford. In 1979 Chrysler was facing spiking interest rates, and an 'oil shock' that doubled the price of petrol.
Iacocca searched for a merger partner, but turned to the government when no one came forward. The amount Iacocca was looking for was USD 1.5 billion in loan guarantees. He won the loan guarantees but the government required broad sacrifices, plant closures, pay cuts for factory workers and layoffs of white-collar staff.
He put his personal reputation on the line, and factoring in positions at Chrysler, its dealerships and suppliers, he saved more than 500,000 jobs. Mr Liebler said,"People saw him in the trenches. When we needed the loan guarantees and he was pounding the halls of Congress, the dealers were with him. He worked his head off day and night, and everyone who was involved in any way with Chrysler knew it."
Chrysler's introduction of the smaller and fuel-efficient 'K Cars' gave it a boost. In a series of no-nonsense television commercials, Iacocca said, "If you can find a better car, buy it!"
He paid the loans back seven years early, and in 1983, a cartoon showed desperate executives of the troubled United States airline industry shouting into a phone, "Get me Lee Iacocca!"
Chrysler struggled through the 1990-1991 economic shut-down, losing UDS 800 million in the process. However, Lee Iacocca refused to cut new product spending, and by 1992, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and LH sedans led to a USD 732 million profit, while Ford and General Motors Co were in the still figuring out how to recover.
With Chrysler profitable again, Iacocca stepped down at the end of 1992, and out the rest of his life in Bel-Air, California.
Thoughts About The Legend That Was Lee Iacocca
Respect. Here's a guy who literally brought the Mustang to the world. And then went on to save Chrysler. Phew! That is a career we can only dream of. Thank you Lee, we appreciate everything you have done for the auto industry. Rest in peace.