Chrysler Acts Fast to Fill a Big Void : Autos: The firm lost Gerald Greenwald to UAL at a crucial moment. Steve Miller has been named to replace him.


Gerald Greenwald's decision to give up his role as heir apparent to Lee A. Iacocca, in favor of a less-certain future heading an effort to buy United Airlines' parent, left a void in Chrysler's top management that the auto company Thursday moved quickly to fill.

On the day after Greenwald, the 54-year-old Chrysler vice chairman, resigned to take charge of a union-led, $4 billion-plus buyout effort, Chairman Iacocca announced that R. S. (Steve) Miller, Chrysler's longtime chief financial officer, would take over as vice chairman and assume many of Greenwald's responsibilities.

Miller, 48, who played a key role in handling the vital negotiations with Chrysler's bankers during the firm's bailout in the early 1980s, thus becomes a leading candidate to succeed Iacocca.

Another contender, however, is Robert Lutz, 58, president of Chrysler Motors, Chrysler's main automotive subsidiary. Lutz's responsibilities were also broadened Thursday, when some operations that previously reported directly to Greenwald, including Chrysler's auto parts-making unit and the firm's quality and productivity office, were turned over to him.

Like Greenwald, both Lutz and Miller were lured by Iacocca to Chrysler from Ford, and now form a top-management team nicknamed Iacocca's "Gang of Ford."

Miller, an Iacocca confidante with a dry sense of humor, is perhaps best known as the man who pulled off the biggest practical joke of Chrysler's bailout. As he began one heated negotiating session with a roomful of bankers, Miller calmly told them Chrysler had just filed for bankruptcy. As the hushed bankers squirmed, he reminded them that it was April 1. "April Fools," he added.

Lutz, meanwhile, is a courtly internationalist who spent much of his career in Europe, where he ran Ford's continent-wide operations before returning to the United States and Chrysler. Once considered a leading contender for the top job at Ford, he joined Iacocca at Chrysler in 1986, after being shunted aside to run Ford's truck division.

The surprising move by Greenwald, who has been Iacocca's top protege since Chrysler's darkest days and who was believed virtually certain to succeed Iacocca, comes at a bad time for the No. 3 auto maker.

He is the third top Chrysler executive in recent weeks to announce plans to leave. Earlier in May, Michael Hammes, Chrysler's vice president for international operations, left to join Black & Decker, and Fred Zuckerman, the company's treasurer, has just announced plans to quit this summer, although he has no new job.

Such rapid turnover gives the impression of turmoil inside Chrysler, especially since the firm is struggling to recover from a severe sales slump and is attempting to mount a crash program to cut costs, sell non-automotive operations and pour its money into a campaign to update its aging product line.

As a result, Greenwald went out of his way Thursday to insist that his move was not a reflection of Chrysler's fortunes but simply of his desire to run his own show.

"At 54, I want to combine my experience and energy as a chief executive officer of a major corporation," Greenwald said. "I was approached at the right time and with the right challenge." He added that he still believes that "Chrysler is poised to become a stronger and more important player in the auto industry in the 1990s. Future product programs are on schedule and securely funded."

Iacocca added that Greenwald was leaving Chrysler because "he has told me that it's time for him to run his own show, and I am positive that United Airlines will be stronger for his decision."

One likely factor in Greenwald's decision to leave was persistent uncertainty over just how long it will take Iacocca to retire. Iacocca turned 65 last November, but has said he will definitely stay on as chairman until his current employment contract runs out in October, 1991. There have also been strong signals that Iacocca will continue at Chrysler well beyond that.

And Greenwald--even if he had stayed on and become chairman--would certainly have remained in Iacocca's shadow. "As you think about what you do, do you really want to be the replacement for John Wooden as basketball coach at UCLA?" asked David Cole, director of the office for the study of automotive transportation at the University of Michigan. "No matter what you do, you can only go down. That's what Greenwald would have faced in succeeding Iacocca."

Still, all signs indicate that Greenwald and Iacocca were close. Greenwald flew to Italy to talk with the vacationing Iacocca for a day and a half before accepting the job as head of the union's effort to buy UAL, United Airlines' parent company.

In fact, Greenwald upset many reporters by not telling the whole truth about his intentions last week, when reports surfaced that he was a leading candidate for the UAL job. He instructed Chrysler's public relations department to tell the press "in the strongest possible terms" that there was nothing to the rumor.

Greenwald explained, in a briefing with reporters in Detroit on Thursday, that he didn't tell the truth because he wanted to talk to Iacocca in person, and because he was still trying to make up his mind about the switch.

Meanwhile, Greenwald and the union team have until Aug. 9 to line up financing for their buyout, and Greenwald will spend much of his time until then dealing with bankers and lenders. He said his wife, Glenda Greenwald, will remain publisher of Michigan Woman, a Detroit-area magazine for women that she founded, but they will eventually move from the Detroit area to Chicago, where UAL is based.

WHY HE SWITCHED: Gerald Greenwald says he's confident that the union-led buyout of UAL willsucceed. D12.

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