PALM SPRINGS, Calif.-He's brash yet charming, self-confident, and has a healthy ego to boot. And opinionated. Is he ever.
Lee Iacocca. Always quotable. The man who helped drag Chrysler Corp. back from near-extinction to again assume its posture as a ``Big Three'' automaker.
Dealers attending Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp.'s (PATC) recent annual business meeting got an unvarnished dose of the retired but never retiring Mr. Iacocca, who admittedly had no prepared text, preferring to ramble rapidfire from topic to topic, such as Chrysler's resurrection, the Clinton health care proposal, to being a success in business today.
Evidenced by the reoccurring laughter and applause, the diminutive man with the reputation as a tough, czar-like marketer owned his audience.
Introducing the former Chrysler chairman to Pirelli and Armstrong dealers, Paul Calvi, PATC president and CEO, called him a ``man `made in America' '' who has ``affected U.S. government more than any other individual outside of government in the last 10 years or longer.''
Mr. Iocacca hardly shrank from that description, name-dropping his ``good friends'' Bill Clinton and George Bush, then almost in the same breath slamming government for ``not listening-I think the public is far ahead of those clowns in Washington, D.C.''
To the news that PATC had just debuted its first Pirelli-brand light truck tire, and a new Armstrong LT tire, he remarked: ``You're getting into the light truck tire business more heavily, and you damn well better, because those sales may soon surpass passenger tire sales. They're red hot.''
He emphasized that keeping in touch with a company's dealers, be they tire or car dealers, is the key to success, noting he never missed a dealer meeting in 47 years nor the opportunity to meet ``face-to-face with our representatives from around the country (who tell) us what we're doing wrong.
``When did we get in trouble at Chrysler? Whenever we lost touch with the dealers-they're the only ones who talk to our consumers.''
To be a good manager, it takes ``good people around you,'' he stated. ``Then you just set priorities and knock them off one at a time. And you keep the avenues of communication open.''
At PATC, he continued, ``you're smaller. You can pick out your niche and raise hell with (your competitors) like Chrysler is doing to Ford and (General Motors.)''
Discover what you do best, and continue to do it, Mr. Iacocca advised. Best means making high-quality products as well as treating the customer as ``king.''
``The customers-at least 99 percent of them-are always right,'' he declared. ``The other 1 percent are chiselers. But since we can't find out who the chiselers are, we treat everybody equally.''
He applauded President Clinton, whom he said worked tirelessly-as Mr. Iacocca did-for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, adding, ``No one else in the last 15 years has had the guts to say we need to make sacrifices. Before him, our motto was, `Hey, have fun, be happy.' ''
Nonetheless, he warned that those sacrifices will eventually ``fall on the shoulders of our kids. Equality of sacrifice is needed,'' and he bemoaned the fact that ``if you have to pick one thing that's wrecking our country, it's the demise of the family unit.''
Fielding dealers' questions, Mr. Iacocca was asked by Ross Kogel, president of Tire Wholesalers Co. Inc., Troy, Mich., what he saw in Chrysler that gave him the courage to go there and attempt to rescue the floundering firm.
``I had to be a little crazy. Chrysler coined the word `crisis.' I wouldn't ever go to the government more than once hat-in-hand. That's murder,'' the former CEO answered, alluding to the federal bail-out of the automaker.
But, he pointed out, while the government guaranteed a $1 billion loan to Chrysler, ``we gave them back a check for $1.2 billion-and made a $350 million profit. They didn't know what to do with the check. No one had ever repaid the government before. It took them 40 days to process it.''
In answer to a question posed by David DeSalvo of Century Tire Co. in Lynn, Mass., Mr. Iacocca said he favored health care reform, though he does not believe the U.S. has a ``crisis.''
Universal coverage ``is the right move,'' he added, but a choice must be made: ``You either pay 20 percent more for health care, or take 20 percent less in benefits.''
He also lamented the predicament of small business operators, remarking, ``I don't know how they-like some of you tire dealers-make it in this country.
``(You) take all the risks, pay higher taxes, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is getting stricter, the minimum wage is increasing.... I wouldn't be an entrepreneur today in this Democratic vision of the future.''
Then the self-described millionaire waded into the crowd to shake hands and sign a few autographs before hopping into his Dodge Viper and driving away. And without fastening his seat belt, either, noted one dealer.