NEW YORK – When I heard on Tuesday night that Lee Iacocca had passed away, I was momentarily taken aback. Not so much because he had died — he was, after all, 94 — but because, for someone who had been such a larger-than-life figure for so much of his career, he had been out of the limelight for so long.
Iacocca first burst into the public consciousness in 1963, when he made the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, standing in front of the brand new Ford Mustang, which he had (allegedly) masterminded as a top Ford executive. And those were the days when making the cover of Time or Newsweek really meant something!
His last public act took place in 1995, when he and financier Kirk Kerkorian made a foolhardy attempt to take over Chrysler. Although he later formed an investment company, and dabbled in this and that, this once unforgettable figure spent the last two decades of his life, well, forgotten.
In the headline of its obituary, The New York Times described Iacocca as a “Visionary Automaker Who Led Both Ford and Chrysler.” And that’s true, so far as it goes. Having accrued most of the credit for the Mustang, he was promoted to Ford’s president by the time he was 46. But in 1978, even though Ford was going great guns, Henry Ford II fired him. Supposedly, Ford said he was canning Iacocca because he didn’t like him.
Then came his tenure at Chrysler, which was on the brink of collapse when he took it over. He persuaded the federal government to give the company $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, and used that money to orchestrate a brilliant turnaround, spearheaded by the Chrysler minivan — a car that, in addition to making the company gobs of money, had a profound impact on American society. (Just ask any parent.)
All well and good.
But Iacocca influenced the culture in another way as well. The celebrification of chief executives can be traced directly to him. Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low key, boring even. Iacocca made it OK for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it. I should also note that Iacocca wasn’t just a business celebrity but an Italian-American celebrity. In 1963, when he first became famous, that was something Italian-Americans took pride in; by the time he left Chrysler in the 1990s, Italian-American celebrities had become no big deal. That’s progress.
When had a chief executive made himself the centerpiece of his company’s ad campaign before Iacocca did it at Chrysler? When had one made himself a selling point in asking Congress for help? Or taken a public victory lap the way Iacocca did after the Chrysler turnaround, posing for magazine covers from Life to the Saturday Evening Post? Or publicly muse about running for president? Oh, and when had a chief executive written an autobiography that became one of the best-selling books of all time? Not business books, mind you. Books. Published in 1984, there were more than 7 million copies sold by the end of the following year.
After Iacocca did it, other CEOs put themselves in their companies’ ad campaign: Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s Co., and Victor Kiam, who owned Remington Products Co., maker of electric shavers. (His tag line: “I liked it so much, I bought the company.”)
CEOs became less bashful about granting interviews and posing for magazine covers. (By 2002, Bill Gates had posed for Fortune’s cover 25 times.) Or bragging about their accomplishments to anyone who would listen. (I’m talking to you, Jack Welch.)
And then there were the ghostwritten CEO autobiographies, which poured forth into bookstores after the success of “Iacocca: An Autobiography.” “Pizza Tiger,” by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza Inc. “Work in Progress,” by Michael Eisner, former chief executive of The Walt Disney Co. “Straight From the Gut,” by 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. For the record, the Watson book, written with Peter Petre, is in my view, the best CEO autobiography ever written. It is a deeply personal account of not just running a company but dealing with a larger-than-life father, who founded IBM.
And lest we forget: “The Art of the Deal,” by Donald Trump. That came out three years after Iacocca’s book.
I never covered Iacocca myself, but I’ve long realized that much of my career has been spent taking advantage of the trail he blazed. My very first business story, in 1982, was about T. Boone Pickens’ first hostile takeover attempt, which I wrote for Texas Monthly. When Pickens decided to write his autobiography a few years later, he hired me as his ghostwriter. (It ended badly for me, but that’s a story for another day.)
During my decade at Fortune, getting to know CEOs, interviewing them, writing stories about them — and getting them to pose for the cover — was at the heart of the enterprise. I did a short documentary about Warren Buffett. At The New York Times, my readership always spiked when I wrote a column about Steve Jobs and Apple. Now at Bloomberg, I still find myself drawn to columns about CEOs. Readers care about the comings and goings of chief executives in a way they never did before Iacocca.
So I guess what I should say as I bid adieu to him is simply this: Thank you. Maybe that’s what we should all say.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and The New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast “The Shrink Next Door.”