Chrysler Corp.'s chief-to-be says he's no Lee Eaton promises a new style: 'Lee's Lee and I'm me.'

March 17, 1992|By Joann Muller | Joann Muller,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- Robert Eaton is the first to admit he's no Lee Iacocca.

"First of all, I'm a lousy writer," said Mr. Eaton, 52, who was chosen to succeed the charismatic chairman of Chrysler Corp., author of two best-selling books.

"Lee's Lee and I'm me and we're a little bit different," said Mr. Eaton, who said he doesn't crave -- and doubts he'll ever achieve -- Mr. Iacocca's kind of national prominence.

Nor is he likely to don a trench coat to star in Chrysler television commercials.

"I doubt if I would have the appeal that Lee has in commercials," Mr. Eaton joked during his first news conference since being named Chrysler's vice chairman and chief operating officer yesterday.

"That probably wouldn't be something that the marketing guys would be interested in at all."

nTC But he clearly was thrilled, looking like a giddy kid who was handed the keys to the amusement park. He enjoyed the spotlight, leaning forward eagerly to answer reporters' questions.

Mr. Eaton, a 29-year General Motors veteran, will take over as CEO when Mr. Iacocca steps down at the end of the year.

But some observers don't envy him the task of trying to run his own show with Mr. Iacocca still in the picture as a Chrysler director and chairman of the board's executive committee.

"No one really knows" how he'll handle Mr. Iacocca looking over his shoulder, said automotive consultant Anthony DeLorenzo, a retired GM vice president of public relations. "I'd say Bob is a very resilient person. I think he can fit in very well with whatever he's asked to do."

No one doubts that Mr. Eaton has big shoes to fill at Chrysler.

But Washington attorney Thomas Gottschalk, who worked closely with Mr. Eaton to defend GM's X-cars against a government claim of faulty brakes in the mid-1980s, said Mr. Eaton knows how to handle such situations.

He mentioned as an example Mr. Eaton's success even in the shadow of his mentor, Frank Winchell, former GM vice president of engineering, whom Mr. Gottschalk described as "an extremely strong, forceful and talented person."

Mr. Eaton was able to handle "a very senior and charismatileader at GM" and yet still accomplish his own agenda, Mr. Gottschalk said.

"Bob Eaton, if anyone, can satisfy Lee Iacocca but still formulate his own strategy," Mr. Gottschalk said.

Mr. Eaton shouldn't have trouble adjusting to Chrysler because he doesn't have a big ego, according to his former boss and occasional hunting buddy, retired GM Chairman Roger Smith.

"Bob's an outstanding executive, there's no question about that," said Mr. Smith.

"He's certainly a brilliant engineer," he added, mentioning Mr. Eaton's involvement with the development of the successful new Saturn cars and Impact, GM's new electric car.

Mr. Eaton joined GM's Chevrolet Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., in 1963 after graduating from the University of Kansas.

He rose through GM's engineering ranks, and became group vice president of GM's technical staffs in 1986 before being named president of General Motors Europe in June 1988. He lives in Zurich and is an avid skier.

Mr. Eaton and his wife, Connie, have two children. They have a house in Bloomfield Hills, near Detroit, as well as a vacation home in northern Michigan.

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