AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, his voice cracking with emotion, bid goodbye to shareholders yesterday at what is expected to be the last annual meeting he will preside over as the company's chief executive.
" 'Nobody gets to be cowboy forever,' " Mr. Iacocca said, borrowing a line from the 1970 Western movie "Monte Walsh." "And that includes me."
Hanging up his spurs will not be easy for the 68-year-old auto executive. Having achieved corporate hero status for his role in rescuing Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early 1980s, Mr. Iacocca had hoped to stick around long enough to lead the company out of its current crisis.
But the lingering recession and a recent decision by the company's board of directors to install a new chairman at the end of this year make Mr. Iacocca's chances at an encore look increasingly slim.
The struggling automaker posted a $256 million operating loss in the first quarter of this year, on top of 1991 losses totaling $795 million.
And Mr. Iacocca acknowledged yesterday that an anticipated im provement in the second quarter would be offset by heavy spending on the launch of the company's new Jeep Grand Cherokee and midsize sedans.
Seemingly resigned to the board of directors' decision last March to install former General Motors executive Robert J. Eaton as his successor at the end of this year, Mr. Iacocca wistfully told shareholders that he still hoped to be remembered as the one who laid the plans for what he said would be Chrysler's second comeback.
Some of the most meaningful memories of his 46-year career, Mr. Iacocca said, were the introduction of the Mustang when he was president of Ford Motor Co., the Chrysler turnaround of a decade ago, and the "minivan revolution."
"But the biggest moments of all," Mr. Iacocca said, brushing nostalgia aside, "the ones I hope somebody will remember to tie my name to someday, are the ones yet to come. My greatest satisfaction will be seeing where this company goes from here."
The white hat Mr. Iacocca wore at the beginning of his 12-year tenure as Chrysler's chairman turned black in the eyes of many Americans during the second half of the 1980s, as his compensation skyrocketed and the company's fortunes began to sag.
But now, with costs down, new products in the pipeline and even Mr. Iacocca's long crusade against Japanese trade practices beginning to bear fruit, the plot may be about to twist again.
Renowned for his Japan-bashing, Mr. Iacocca noted yesterday that Japan's auto market was beginning to open up, and he praised the voluntary cap on auto exports announced by the Japanese government in March.