‘Lead, follow or get out of the way’

Those of us who love everything about automobiles and the people who design, build and sell them lost a true hero Tuesday when we learned of the death of Lee Iacocca.

He brought us the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler K-cars, and was responsible for the launch of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans, vehicles that became synonymous with families in the 1980s and 1990s. His backing of Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors in 1987 came with the iconic Jeep brand just as sports-utilities were becoming the go-to vehicles of choice.

Though trained as an engineer, Iacocca became a marketing and sales whiz at Ford before being named vice president and general manager in 1960. He pushed the then-staid executives at Ford to take a chance on the Mustang in 1964, creating in the process the pony class of muscle cars. His intuition paid off — a record 418,812 Mustangs were sold in the first 12 months.

After Iacocca, who was 94 when he died, was fired by Henry Ford II in 1978, he took on the challenge of reviving the then-failing Chrysler Corp. which he did by joining with the United Auto Workers to convince the federal government to guarantee $1.5 billion in loans. His business plan was so successful that the company was able to pay that money back with interest seven years early, in the process saving thousands of jobs at Chrysler and its suppliers, and bringing in millions of dollars for the lending banks, lawyers, investment bankers and federal government.

He was a best-selling author, sharing his story and business philosophy in “Iacocca: An Autobiography” and “Talking Straight” in the 1980s. Iacocca also was the star of his company’s television commercials, was a guest star in “Miami Vice” and was touted as a potential presidential candidate in the run-up to the 1988 election.

More than just an outspoken executive, Iacocca was instrumental in raising money to help fight diabetes, which took the life of his first wife, Mary, in 1983. And, the son of Italian immigrants who grew up in Allentown, Pa., answered the call of then-President Ronald Reagan and chaired the fundraising efforts to restore the Statue of Liberty and renovate Ellis Island prior to the statue’s 100th anniversary in 1986.

His many business ventures included the founding of Olivio Premium Products and its olive oil-based spread.

Iacocca’s success was a combination of brashness and innovation, of engineering excellence and marketing savvy, all summed up in a phrase that, while not original, he famously used in a Chrysler television commercial, words that point to a philosophy that is important in business as well as in life:

“You lead, follow or get out of the way.”

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