Switzerland and Midwest Connections: Swiss American Reflections — A Conversation with Robert Lutz
Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.
No other Swiss businessman has had such an illustrious career in the United States as did Robert Lutz, who held senior executive positions with Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, as well as BMW. Notwithstanding spending most of his life in the United States, he still speaks perfect Swiss German with a Zurich dialect. He has authored three books on leadership and at age 90 still has a keen intellect. For our History Blog, Bob Lutz shares his experiences living in Switzerland and the United States.
Joerg Oberschmied: You came at an early age from Switzerland to the US, What had the greatest impact on your development in the United States?
Bob Lutz: My father was frequently assigned to brief stays in the New York office of Credit Suisse early in his career, so by the time I was six, I had crossed the Atlantic six times. The last, supposedly-two year assignment occurred in 1939, when I was seven. The outbreak of WW2 prevented our return, so the family remained in the US until 1946. Those seven years were a major part of my youthful development. The US was, at the time, much more free-thinking, and less “convention bound” than Switzerland. Young people, and women (as my mother happily experienced) enjoyed more freedom. School was less rigorous, but provided for more interaction with teachers, more room for disagreement, more tolerance of student creativity and innovation. Example: in second grade in Zurich (Schulhaus Fluntern), the teacher would laboriously draw a huge apple on the blackboard in colored chalk. The grade for the pupils was based on how accurately one could, with our Caran d’Ache colored pencils, precisely reproduce her apple. In the US, the teacher would hand out paper and say “Draw or paint whatever you feel like.” The Swiss approach focused on discipline, rules, precision, and conformity. The US favored initiative and creativity. In an ideal world, both should be taught. But, during that seven years, I became culturally American.
JO: Aside from your parents, which Person had the greatest influence on your development in Switzerland?
BL: The person in Switzerland who had greatest influence on me was my class teacher at the Ecole Superieure de Commerce, in Lausanne. Although of only medium stature, his military bearing, his piercing eyes, his determined jaw permitted him to command immediate attention and respect when he walked into the room. He was demanding, firm, relentless in his teaching quest. But he could also be funny, and could reduce non-performing students nearly to tears with his masterful use of sarcasm. I always thought “Why is this exceptional man wasting his huge intellect and energy on a bunch of Swiss-German students?” I needn’t have worried, for, a few years later, he was mayor of Lausanne and, at the end of his political career, a member of the Conseil Federal and President of Switzerland! His name was Georges-André Chevallaz, professor, Army officer, politician….one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. He had a profound influence on me.
JO: You were a US Marine combat pilot, why did you not fly for the Swiss Air Force?
BL: Upon my return to Swiss schools in 1947, I did not adapt well. I was far behind in most subjects, especially mathematics. The Swiss Air Force’s requirements were very rigorous, and included good academic performance. I was unlikely to qualify. But there were other reasons: The US was actively engaged in a high-stakes cold war with the Soviet Union. Switzerland was officially neutral, although emotionally on the side of the West. My time in the US had made me admire the US Marine Corps, which has its own organic aviation. Soviet propaganda called the Marine Corps “the striking fist of capitalist imperialism”. Good! I wanted to a part of that striking fist! There was also the fact that US military spending was almost limitless at the time, so the chance of getting to fly really advanced, high-performance, latest-generation fighters was much greater in the US.
JO: What are the main differences between doing business in Europe and in the US?
BL: Well, my experience doing business is no longer quite fresh, but I would offer, based on my experience over 25 years in France and Germany, that US corporations are somewhat less burdened by government regulation. And onerous, if well-intentioned labor laws, which make it almost impossible to close a factory in France, for instance, are far more accommodating to business in the US. In the American business world, anti-trust laws are taken very seriously, and nobody in any reputable US company would ever think of having an improper conversation with a competitor. But, when I was a senior executive (Mitglied des Vorstands) at BMW in Munich, I was witness to many such illegal conversations. There was also wide-spread minor corruption at all levels of the company, which I found very distressing. Twenty years ago, I would have claimed that European manufacturers were more quality-focused, and more interested in the long term than the quarterly-earnings focused US manufacturers. I no longer believe this to be true. ln all fields, whether education, technology, banking or military…the US is never static, always experimenting, always trying new solutions, some good, some bad. But it brings constant renewal. Elon Musk is not American. But he could only achieve the improbable success he has had in the United States. Europe would have stifled him.
JO: You are fluent in Swiss German and remain in touch with Switzerland. What do you value the most about Switzerland and what do you value most about the United States?
BL: Among the blessings bestowed on America’s residents is a huge, continent-spanning country, much of it still wilderness, unsettled or very sparsely populated. With the abundance of land comes lower prices for property than in densely-populated Switzerland. This allows middle-class, and even lower-middle class Americans to own homes and parcels of land that would be reserved for the super-wealthy in Switzerland. Most Swiss people, understandably, live in rental apartments or condominiums. And the US is much more relaxed when it comes to vehicles: laws prohibiting modifications to engines, chassis or body, or to motorcycle exhausts, are either non-existent, or simply not enforced. Quite the opposite is true in my native Switzerland. But the Swiss reverence for rules, law and order has its benefits: Switzerland has little crime, and almost no violent crime or murders….a clean, safe place to live, and to raise children. Switzerland is more culture and tradition-focused than US society, which relentlessly pursues change. The Swiss countryside is spared the sight of ugly advertising. Lakes are peaceful and quiet, due to bans on power boats. America’s ubiquitous fast-food chains play a much smaller role in Switzerland, where modestly-priced restaurants still serve meals prepared on location by skilled chefs. Not to mention the superb selection of cheeses, dried meats and sausages, all light years better than their US equivalents. Both countries have their appeal, and both lack things the other has. I ‘m proud to be a citizen of both. If only it were possible to live in both at the same time!
JO: In your car collection is an Aston Martin DB2 Vantage from 1952. What is special about that car?
BL: Yes, my 1952 Aston Martin DB2 “Vantage” has an interesting history. My father, at the time in a senior position at Credit Suisse, ordered it as an expression of solidarity with the newly-elected Conservative government in the UK. That, at least, was his story: I believe he simply wanted one. He owned it happily for seven years, and then ordered the larger, more powerful DB 2 Mk 3. He was not offered a decent price for the ’52, so tried to sell it to me for Sfr 1,000. It was fair, but I was just leaving active duty in the Marine Corps, and becoming a student at UC Berkeley to get an MBA. I had no money, but a wife and two small children. l declined his offer, and my father gave the Aston to his long-time chauffeur at Credit Suisse. That was the last I heard for over twenty years. One day, when in Zurich, I spotted the disfigured remains of a 1952 DB2 at the shop of a specialized Aston Martin restorer, in Faellanden, near Zurich. l mentioned to the owner that my father had owned one like it, but his was metallic blue. The proprietor told me that this one had been blue! More details confirmed my suspicion. When we checked his file on the car, we found my father’s original order and factory build ticket. I bought it in the spot, had it restored in Switzerland to exactly the way my father had it, and am still enjoying this superb car which is so filled with memories of my dad. Not that it matters, but the current value of decent DB2’s is around $200,000!
JO: Bob Lutz, thank you for taking the time to share these stories with our readers.