An Appreciation: Chrysler Rescuer Lee Iacocca Was America’s First Celebrity CEO

Lee Iacocca with Snoop Dogg in a 2005 commercial. Photo credit: Chrysler

Lee Iacocca lived to see a day that many in the auto industry doubted would ever transpire: When the Chrysler company he once led finally exceeded Ford Motor in profitability. That’s the case right now, with the domestic car industry’s long-time No. 3 doing a better job of realizing profits from its sales of big vehicles than the long-time No. 2. It’s no understatement to say this day never would have come without Iacocca.

Even more, it’s extremely likely that Chrysler would have fallen into the ash heap of industrial failure 30 years ago without the leadership of the Pennsylvania-born son of an Italian-immigrant hot-dog vendor, who became one of the most dynamic leaders in automotive history and America’s first celebrity CEO.

Iacocca died on Tuesday at his home in Bel Air, California, at the age of 94, having logged a legendary career as the product and sales genius who birthed the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan, who persuaded federal lawmakers to bail out Chrysler to the tune of $1.5 billion in loan guarantees even in the midst of the early-1980s recession, who paid back the American taxpayer with interest, and who convinced consumers that they were doing the right thing for themselves and the country by purchasing one of the company’s compact “K-cars.”

“If you can find a better car, buy it,” was Iacocca’s pitch in TV ads that became iconic even as they saved his company. And Chrysler proceeded to sell more than two million front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine K-car models including Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant and Chrysler LeBaron, though the cars were below the quality standards even of General Motors and Ford, and whiffed mightily in objective product comparisons with the Japanese imports that were flooding the United States at the time.

Indeed, it was Iacocca’s salesmanship, track record, confidence, and personal reassurance that helped Chrysler survive his era for future corporate high-wire acts that included an ill-fitted purchase by Daimler AG and a private-equity buyout by Cerberus, before Chrysler finally landed in the arms of Fiat in 2008.

“Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit,” Fiat Chrysler Automotive said in its official statement on Iacocca’s passing. “His legacy is the resiliency and unshakeable faith in the future that live on in the men and women of FCA who strive every day to live up to the high standards he set.”

Even William Ford Jr., the son of Henry Ford II and current executive chairman of Ford, had to acknowledge in tribute that “Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”

Iacocca launched the ever-popular Mustang in 1964 and became Ford’s No. 2 before Henry Ford II summarily dismissed Iacocca in 1978 simply because he didn’t like the man. The rest, after Iacocca jumped to Chrysler, was history.

And in a way uncommon among tributes to departed CEOs, the posthumous kudos for Iacocca basically reflect truth. Iacocca suffered some failures late in his career such as an aborted takeover bid for Chrysler in 1995 with his friend, Kirk Kerkorian. But the thing about Iacocca was that he usually came through.

Lee Iaccoca being honored
Auburn Hills (Mich.) Ð July 24, 2010 Ð Chrysler Group LLC CEO Sergio Marchionne (third from left) spontaneously invited Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally (second from left), and UAW President Bob King (left) on stage to help him honor retired Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca at the inaugural Walter P. Chrysler Legacy Gala at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.

For example, the U.S. taxpayer actually gained from the money earned by the federal treasury on the stock it received as part of the bailout package. By contrast, a quarter-century later, Chrysler bond holders and American taxpayers ate their shirts on the billions of dollars of losses incurred in the U.S. government’s bailout of the company and subsequent sale of its carcass to Fiat.

And while at Chrysler, Iacocca followed his nose for winning products by introducing the minivan in 1983, a completely new automotive category that helped Chrysler survive that era and stole a march on the many imitators that would come. Today, minivan sales have lagged as families turn to big SUVs instead, but the current Chrysler Pacifica minivan testifies to Iacocca’s vision—and that of the product guru he brought with him to Chrysler from Ford, Hal Sperlich—as well as the Mustang does.

Looking back at Iacocca’s life and accomplishments also raises an analogy to the first CEO who became the American president. In the wake of his success in reviving Chrysler, Iacocca accepted a role as head of a commission that overhauled the Statue of Liberty and preserved it for future generations. Also in the midst of that accomplishment, he became fodder for conversation about a presidential bid.

It was one challenge he never took on. But Iacocca was a pre-Trumpian figure in that he was a successful business leader with lots of bravado who believed that government leadership could apply the lessons of private enterprise to running the most important nation on earth. Iacocca also was an early champion of American manufacturing and also, like Donald Trump, a critic of the policies of the country’s biggest trading partner, which at the time was Japan, not China.

Yet Iacocca had a filter and commanded an inherent amount of respect from all who dealt with him, qualities that have eluded the current president. So there’s no telling what Iacocca might have accomplished if he’d ever been seated in the White House. But for sure he would have had some riveting campaign ads.

Read more: Sergio Marchionne Built Fiat Chrysler In His Own Unconventional Way