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What Indian CEOs can learn from Lee Iacocca

September 05, 2019 20:00 IST

'The legend that was Iacocca may be difficult for any to rival despite millions of social media followers and so many more media pathways to fame. Why? Iacocca was a salesman, even more than being a CEO. He sold the corporate brand; he sold himself too. Brazenly. Audaciously. Unapologetically. Unabashedly,' says Sandeep Goyal.

Lee Iacocca was a legendary chief executive officer (CEO), the first in a queue that included others such as Sergio Marchionne, Elon Musk and Carlos Ghosn from the auto industry who became flag-bearers for their respective corporate brands; one whose “inspired leadership” style presaged the arrival of Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos amongst others.


Iacocca’s fame started to soar with the Ford Mustang, which was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and became a super-duper hit.

Iacocca and the car appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, with Time calling him “the hottest young man in Detroit.”

In the 1980s, Iacocca joined an embattled and near bankrupt Chrysler.

His launches of the first US-produced minivans, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan and his personally appearing in their advertising as the straight-talking, patriotic pitchman in Chrysler’s television commercials, produced by New York-based firm Kenyon & Eckhardt Inc, catapulted him to hitherto unbelievable stratospheres of exposure, recognition, and popularity as a corporate CEO.

“If you don’t agree they’re the best Chryslers ever made, the very best America has to offer at a sensible price, then I’m in the wrong business,” he would say in one ad.

His trademark line that made advertising history however was, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

His autobiography further tom-tomed his personal legend; it was by far the top-selling hardcover non-fiction book of 1984 and 1985, according to The New York Times.

There was talk of Iacocca running for president (he never did, though).

Without doubt, nevertheless, Lee Iacocca was the first celebrity CEO of the world.

Well in all fairness, there were corporate leaders like John D Rockefeller, Walt Disney, Estée Lauder and Henry Ford who captured the public’s imagination before Lee Iacocca.

But Iacocca was just something else.

When the 1986 movie Platoon was released, viewers first saw a “tribute” -- Chrysler and HBO refused to call it a “commercial” -- from Mr Iacocca standing next to a military jeep.

“I hope we will never have to build another jeep for war,” he said somberly, and ended the spot by saying, “I’m Lee Iacocca.”

Dave Thomas of Wendy’s emulated Iacocca by featuring in his company’s advertising; so did Victor Kiam of Remington.

Bill Gates quickly understood the power of being visible: by 2002 he had been on Fortune’s cover 25 times!

And CEO autobiographies became the newest craze: Pizza Tiger, by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza Inc, Work in Progress by Michael Eisner of The Walt Disney Co, Straight From the Gut by Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric Co, Sam Walton: Made in America by Walmart Inc founder Sam Walton, Father, Son & Co: My Life at IBM by Thomas Watson Jr, The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump all followed the success of Iacocca: An Autobiography.

India has had its fair share of celebrity CEOs over the past few decades.

From JRD Tata to Ratan Tata. GD Birla to Kumar Mangalam Birla. Dhirubhai Ambani to Mukesh Ambani. Brijmohan Lall Munjal to Sunil Kant Munjal. Vikram Lal to Siddharth Lal. Sunil Bharti Mittal. Kishore Biyani. Rahul Bajaj. Azim Premji. Anand Mahindra. Lakshmi Mittal. Narayan Murthy.

But these are all owner-CEOs.

There have also been the likes of YC Deveshwar, AM Naik, Sunil Duggal and Jagdish Khattar who made their mark as professional CEOs.

And then there are the tribe of global Indian CEOs like Indra Nooyi, Ajay Banga, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and more.

But none is really in the same bracket as Iacocca.

They are famous; they are well-recognised; they carry considerable political and economic clout; the Tata-Birla-Ambanis are household names.

But yet, the kind of public persona that Iacocca had … the kind of film-star fame that he enjoyed is not to be seen amongst Indian corporates.

Even as autobiographies are concerned, the best selling ones in India are those of E Sreedharan of Delhi Metro fame, and that of Verghese Kurien of Amul, not any of the current or past Indian corporate captains.

The moot question remains whether the CEO brand should dominate, sometimes even be allowed to overshadow, the corporate brand.

According to the Burson-Marsteller “CEO Reputation Study”, close to 50 per cent of the reputation of a company can be attributed to the standing of its CEO.

But should the CEO emulate Iacocca?

That is not a question that begets an easy answer.

Forbes estimates that 44 per cent of a company’s market value is attributable to CEO reputation.

Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are cult figures today, only perhaps a tad behind Steve Jobs.

But the legend that was Iacocca may be difficult for any of them to rival despite millions of social media followers and so many more media pathways to fame.

Why? Iacocca was a salesman, even more than being a CEO.

He sold the corporate brand; he sold himself too.

Brazenly. Audaciously. Unapologetically. Unabashedly.

Sandeep Goyal is an advertising and media veteran.

Photograph: John Hillery/Reuters

Sandeep Goyal
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