Lee Iacocca is an American automobile executive best known for the development of Ford Mustang and Pinto cars, while at the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s, and then later for reviving the Chrysler Corporation as its CEO during the 1980 with the development of the minivan as well as acquiring American Motors.
Lee Iacocca was born Lido Anthony Iacocca on October 15, 1924 to Nicola and Antonietta, both of whom were Italian immigrants. In 1945, Iacocca graduated from Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, PA. He then went on to receive a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton University in 1946. Hired as an engineer by the Ford Motor Company, he quickly proved that he was better suited for sales. It was this shift that sparked an illustrious beginning for Iacocca and ushered in monumental achievements for Ford, including the undertaking of the Fairlane committee and the production of the 1964 Mustang. Lee, then known to some as the “Father of the Mustang”.
Iacocca participated in other designs of several successful Ford automobiles, most notably the Continental Mark III, the Ford Escort and the revival of the Mercury brand in the late 1960s, including the introduction of the Mercury Cougar and Mercury Marquis. He became the president of the Ford Motor Company on December 10, 1970, he clashed with Henry Ford II and was fired on July 13, 1978, despite the fact that the company posted a $2 billion profit for the year.
In 1979, he joined forces with Chrysler and advanced to the position of CEO. With Chrysler facing bankruptcy, Lee appealed to the federal government for aid, and paid off the federal government seven years early, at a profit of $350 million to the U.S. government.
Chrysler released the first of the K-Car line, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, in 1981, these compact automobiles were based on design proposals that Ford had rejected during Iacocca’s tenure. Released in the middle of the major 1980-1982 recession, the small, efficient, and inexpensive front-wheel drive cars sold rapidly. In addition, Iacocca re-introduced the big Imperial as the company’s flagship. The new model had all of the newest technologies of the time, including fully electronic fuel injection and all-digital dashboard. Chrysler introduced the minivan in late 1983. It led the automobile industry in sales for 25 years.
Iacocca led Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC in 1987, which brought the profitable Jeep division under the corporate umbrella. It created the short-lived Eagle division, formed from the remnants of AMC. The Grand Cherokee would not be released until 1992 for the 1993 model year, the same year that Iacocca retired.
On the heels of his success, President Ronald Reagan asked Lee to undertake a private sector fundraising effort to restore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In the largest restoration project of its kind in American history, $170 million in individual and corporate donations were devoted to the Ellis Island main building project alone.
Lee met the love of his life, Mary McCleary, in 1948. Mary worked as a receptionist at the Ford Motor Company’s Philadelphia office. Soon thereafter, at the age of 23, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. After eight years of dating, Mary and Lee were married on September 29, 1956 and made a home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Lee’s family was always of paramount importance. He and Mary had two daughters, Kathryn and Lia, who truly completed the Iacocca family. Despite his busy professional life, Lee was determined to balance his responsibilities at the office with those at home. In 1983, Lee suffered a personal and devastating blow. His beloved wife, Mary, died from diabetes complications after battling the disease for 34 years. She was only 57 years old. A year later, in 1984, The Iacocca Family Foundation was founded by Lee in memory of his late wife. The same year he published his autobiography, Iacocca, and gained celebrity status, selling seven million copies. He donated the proceeds from this book to his newly formed Foundation. Lee’s daughter, Kathryn, became actively involved with this cause, becoming the Foundation’s President. Under Kathryn’s guidance, the Foundation has funded innovative and promising research programs and projects that will one day lead to a cure. Today, Lee and his daughters, Kathryn and Lia, continue tirelessly in the pursuit of the Foundation’s mission.
I’m proud to be a first generation American and prouder still to be raised by two of the finest parents anyone could ever have. My father, Nicola, first came here from Italy when he was twelve years old. Nineteen years later, he’d saved enough to travel back to get my grandmother. How’s that for determination? It was on that same trip back that he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Antoinette. Fortunately for both of us, he was charming enough that she came back too.
Growing up, our family lived in the steel making belt of Pennsylvania where my father opened and ran a hot dog restaurant that still stands today – Yocco’s, which is how the Pennsylvania Dutch pronounced Iacocca. After high school, I went somewhere very different, but not very far away: Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. I left four years later with some great experiences under my belt, a degree in industrial engineering and a Wallace Memorial Fellowship to Princeton University (where I had the good fortune of attending during Albert Einstein’s tenure). After Princeton, I landed my first job as an engineer at the Ford Motor Company.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was better suited to the sales and marketing side of the car business. The bosses agreed and soon I made the move. After leading several successful initiatives, I began to move up the ranks, ultimately finding my true calling in product development. It was also during this period that I married my beautiful wife, Mary, with whom I would have two amazing daughters, Kathryn and Lia. With my family by my side, I continued my ascent within the Ford company.
Becoming president of Ford in my forties was a dream come true for the son of immigrants. The 1960s were an incredible period for us at the company, marking the launch of the Ford Mustang and Lincoln Continental Mark III, among others. Our success continued into the 70s, but by the end of the decade Henry Ford II and I could no longer co-exist. In 1978, I was fired despite the fact that we’d netted a $2 billion profit for the year. Of course, though I may not have realized it at the time, some of my best years were still ahead of me.
At first, being hired to head up Chrysler seemed like going from the frying pan into the fire. This venerable company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I had some tough decisions to make. To save the company, I had to lay off some workers, sell off our European division and close several plants. And of course, I had to secure the now famous loan we received from Congress-which I paid back early with interest.
Once Chrysler was solvent, our next step was to seriously rethink the market. We realized that there was a simultaneous need for two very different types of vehicles. The first was a more fuel-efficient, “compact” vehicle (the country was in the midst of a serious fuel crisis). The second was a concept vehicle that inspired me to bring over my old friend Hal Sperlich from Ford. Together, we spearheaded development of a prototype we’d initially kicked the tires on at Ford – the minivan. The minivan was a phenomenal success, and a precursor to the SUV.
But while the early 1980s were years of great career success, they were also ones of great personal loss as Mary finally succumbed to her diabetes in 1983. It was after her passing that we began The Iacocca Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease. (Since I’ve been retired, this has become a primary focus of my energies and I’m optimistic we may still find a cure in my lifetime.)
After Mary’s passing, I poured myself back into work. Chrysler continued its resurgence as the decade went along, acquiring AMC and Jeep in 1987. When I retired from the company in 1992, it was in great shape. I was 68 years old and frankly, feeling a little bored. At that point, I considered everything from public office to the Commissionership of Major League Baseball. None quite intrigued me enough to sign on, so I took the consulting route instead.
After several years of consulting, I finally and officially retired from the private sector… for a while. In 2000, my son-in-law and I launched Olivio Premium Products, a line of products made from olive oil. I finally faced the fact that I had flunked retirement. Today, I spend most of my time working with the Foundation, the Iacocca Institute, and other philanthropic endeavors. My frustration with our nation’s lack of leadership propelled me to write Where Have All the Leaders Gone? I can’t sit on the sidelines while this nation needs me.
Lee A. Iacocca – A Brief History
1924 Lee A. Iacocca is born on October 15 in Allentown, Penn., to Nicola and Antoinette Iacocca.
1945 Graduates from Lehigh University with a B.S. degree in Industrial Engineering.
Receives the Wallace Memorial Fellowship and enrolls at Princeton University.
1946 Graduates from Princeton with a M.S. degree and begins working at the Ford Motor Company as an engineer.
Ford Motor Company
1956 Serves as manager of Ford’s Philadelphia sales district and introduces a lower down payment and easier payment schedule for customers. The districts sales go from worst-to-best in three months.
Promoted to District Sales Manager.
1964 Ford introduces the Mustang – a design project spearheaded by Iacocca. Mustang is a huge success and Iacocca becomes known as the “Father of the Mustang.”
1970 Becomes President of Ford Motor Company.
1978 Leaves Ford and is appointed President of Chrysler Corporation.
1979 The Chrysler Board of Directors elects Iacocca Chairman.
1980 Iacocca is featured in Chrysler advertising. This is the first time the head of an automaker serves as an advertising spokesperson. Coins the phrase “If you find a better car, buy it!”
Chrysler introduces the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, the so-called K-cars, which are instrumental in the financial recovery of the company.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter signs the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act, providing Chrysler with $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees.
1982 President Reagan appoints Iacocca head of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. The Foundation was created to raise funds for the renovation and preservation of the Statue of Liberty.
Chrysler revives the domestic convertible market with the introduction of the LeBaron Convertible.
1983 With the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler creates a completely new market segment called minivan.
The Chrysler formula: the minivans are on a car platform, rather than a truck platform; have the ability to carry seven people and a variety of cargo; and fit in a standard garage.
1984 Co-authors his autobiography. Iacocca: An Autobiography was the best-selling, non-fiction book of 1984 and 1985.
Establishes the Iacocca Foundation in 1984 in honor of his wife, Mary, who died from complications of type 1 diabetes. Today, the Foundation receives all royalties from both of Mr. Iacocca’s best-selling books, Iacocca (1984) and Talking Straight (1988), and the foundation will receive all proceeds for Mr. Iacocca’s participation in the new Chrysler Group Employee Pricing Plus advertising campaign.
1987 Engineers Chrysler’s acquisition of American Motors Corp. for $800 million. AMC is the fourth largest U.S. automaker at the time. The AMC deal adds the prized Jeep® brand into Chrysler ownership.
1988 Chrysler introduces driver’s side airbags as standard equipment, an industry first.
Jointly forms The Iacocca Institute with his alma mater, Lehigh University. The Institute is dedicated to increasing the global competitiveness of American organizations.
1991 Inaugurates the $1 billion Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Mich., USA.
1992 The Chrysler board appoints Robert J. Eaton Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer, with the intention of appointing him to succeed Iacocca as Chairman upon his retirement Jan. 1, 1993.
1993 Iacocca establishes EV Global Motors Company to market electric bicycles.
2001 Branches out EV Global Motors to include Lido Motors USA, a partnership that builds neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs).
2004 Launches “JoinLeeNow,” a campaign to raise $11 million for clinical trials in diabetes.
Iacocca donates $1 million of his own money and asks the American people to get behind him and help raise the additional funding to reach the target.
2005 Participates in Chrysler Group advertising campaign for the Employee Pricing Plus vehicle discount program.
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