Ford Loses Wolfgang Reitzle

David E. Davis, Jr.
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02 David E Davis Jr

Well, Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle has decamped from the FordMotor Company, exchanging all the perquisites of a maharaja for the CEO's job at a German industrial gas and engineering company called Linde AG, which makes, among other things, forklifts. The events surrounding his departure are somewhat murky, but we can safely suggest that chairman and chief executive William Clay Ford, Jr., offered him the moon and most of the stars to stay and become worldwide new-product czar, but in order to accept he would have been forced to (1) disconnect from the Premier Automotive Group (PAG), (2) move his headquarters out of London, and (3) report to Ford chief operating officer Sir Nick Scheele.

The first condition, disconnecting from PAG, was painful to contemplate because PAG was his baby, and he had little doubt that the process of gutting it would begin before the seat of his chair cooled to room temperature. His concept for a new breed of Lincoln—a genuine luxury car that might compete more energetically with Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and BMW—had already been filed and forgotten, and he could envision more of the same now that there was no Jac Nasser to fly high cover for his attacks on Ford's status quo.

The second condition, leaving London, would have been unpleasant but probably not a deal breaker. It amazes me how many Germans are totally unselfconscious Anglophiles. I'm sure that they wanted to invade England in 1940 in order to have access to Savile Row tailoring and English boarding schools. Reitzle had managed to scam himself a sumptuous townhouse in Berkeley Square as PAG world headquarters, where he and a handful of acolytes held forth in sybaritic splendor. To have relocated to Gaydon, in the British Midlands, would not have been the end of the world. However, moving to Detroit or Orange County would have been unpleasant for Reitzle, not least because his glamorous wife is a TV personality in Germany, and this brings us to the final condition.

The third condition, reporting to Nick Scheele—who reports only to Billy Ford and is thus more powerful than Ming the Merciless—was a deal breaker. Reitzle believed that since he had been Number Two at BMW when Scheele was running Jaguar, he was much more important and shouldn't have to report to an inferior. (My mother used to call this "biting off your nose to spite your face.") Ford's board of directors had already approved Reitzle's new deal, but his ego prevented him from accepting it, even when Chairman Ford seemed fully prepared to prostrate himself.

The irony is that Reitzle now assumes a non-automotive chief executive role at Linde with no prestige to speak of, gives up all of the FoMoCo perks he loved so much, and doesn't get to influence the direction of Ford's automobiles and trucks for the next decade or more. There is additional irony in the fact that Reitzle is the only guy around right now who could attack Ford's product problems with the sort of panache that Bob Lutz has brought to General Motors. However, Reitzle's situation may not be hopeless. The buzz is that the heavy hitters at Deutsche Bank have stashed him at Linde against the day when they could bring him in on a float to replace the much-reviled chairman of DaimlerChrysler, Jrgen Schrempp. If this really is the case, then his departure from Ford begins to make sense.

Thus ends another era at the Ford Motor Company. History tells us that no matter who runs Ford, or how much the company seems to change during the tenure of one management team or another, there always comes a point where the Ford family descends upon the place and takes it back again. History also tells us that the Ford Motor Company will pull itself out of the ditch one day, the money will come rolling in, and a whole new team of miracle men will be assembled to take the enterprise to unimagined heights. They may not be as colorful or as gifted as Wolfgang Reitzle, but they'll become famous in their own way. I'd just advise them to keep their rsums up to date. Like the man said, "the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history."

In the meantime, Ford's director of design, J Mays, is appearing in living color in the Style section of the New York Times, telling us how he prowls emporia like Prada and Asprey & Garrard, looking for ideas. In the accompanying photo, Mays grins across the console of a Jaguar at the New York International Auto Show, looking for all the world like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the Times piece, Mays tells us, "Any time I can mix it up with fashion design, from broad picture, big-look issues, to creating better detailing on an automobile, to microscopic jewelry-like details, is ultimately going to help us." And further along, "Most gas gauges are crude looking. Why shouldn't all of that—the console, the panel—look like a Rolex?"

My first response would be that "fashion" is trash, and transient trash at that. "Style" is what we should be seeking in our clothes, our lives, and our automobiles. Style comes from inside us, fashion from outside. Not for nothing were the design sections of the automobile industry in their glory days called Styling Departments. I would continue along this path for a moment longer and suggest that if Mays wants to see how wristwatch graphics might translate to automotive instrument panels, he should go not to a jewelry store but to a Lexus dealership. The Lexus IS300 makes the point in quite handsome fashion. Mr. Mays seems to be reading from a script written before Jac Nasser was fired and Wolfgang Reitzle turned his attention to forklifts.

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