Peter W. Schutz, the German-born American executive-turned author and public speaker credited with turning around Porsche in the 1980s and saving the 911 from extinction, died on Oct. 29, the automaker said today. He was 87.
Schutz was named CEO of the Germany company in 1981 by Ferry Porsche amid the company’s first-ever money-losing year, with executives and the board contemplating pulling the plug on its flailing rear-engine 911 so the company could instead focus on its front-engine models, the 944 and 928. During his tenure, Porsche’s global sales grew from 28,000 units in 1980-81 to a peak of 53,000 in 1986, with revenues climbing from DM 850 million to more than DM 3.7 billion.
In a statement on its website, Porsche said Schutz reversed the decision to kill the 911 in just his third week on the job. “The car’s success continues to justify this move, as the 911 has been regarded as an iconic vehicle and the ultimate sports car for over five decades,” the company said. “Positioned at the heart of the brand, the 911 inspires car enthusiasts around the world and is now considered the benchmark for all other sports cars.”
In the forward to the book “Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera: The Last of the Evolution,” Schutz described the mood at the company before he persuaded the board not to discontinue the 911: “A deep sense of loss, a grieving that was almost heartbreaking, was gathering like a storm. The new Porsche offerings could not replace the revered 911. To me, a newcomer, the feeling of impending catastrophe was overpowering.”
His thinking as CEO suggests that he brought certain American sensibilities to German performance brand. Noting that the 911’s rear-mounted engine made possible two small but kid-friendly seats, Schultz told Autoblog in 2013 that “The back seats are the key to the 911’s longevity. They are the most important thing about the Porsche 911. Young kids want to ride in an exciting sports car, but if you’re alone in a car, it’s just another car. Men don’t have to justify anything to their wives. If the kids are excited about the car, it’s a done deal.”
And in the same Forbes interview, he added: “It was never ‘I’ but always ‘WE.’ Not only with members of my staff, but more importantly, my board colleagues, and working members of the union, was always part of the family. I kept an “open door” policy in my office. My management philosophy was quite different from anything they were previously accustomed to in Germany!”
Under his tenure the company introduced the first 911 Cabriolet, the all-wheel-drive (but money-losing) 959, the 944 Turbo, 944 S and 944 S2. He established Porsche Cars North America with the opening of its Reno, Nev. headquarters (it’s now in Atlanta), and took Porsche AG public. The company also roared back to prominence in racing, dominating the IMSA GTP class, building V6 turbo engines for the McLaren Formula One team and winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans each year between 1981 and 1987. That was no coincidence; in a 2012 interview with Forbes, Schutz said his first steps in becoming CEO were not to cut costs, develop new products or services, or roll out clever new marketing or advertising concepts, but rather “winning major races again.”
His time in charge was also marred by a failed attempt to replace Porsche’s franchise dealership system with more closely controlled sales agencies after irate dealers threatened to sue.
Schutz’s tenure as CEO ended on Jan. 1, 1988, when he was replaced by Heinz Branitzki, the brand’s finance director, amid flagging sales and production cuts in the wake of the 1987 U.S. market crash and weakened U.S. dollar, according to The New York Times.
Schutz was born in Berlin in 1930 but fled the Nazi government for Cuba with his Jewish family at age 8. The family settled in Chicago when he was 11. Schutz obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and started his career at Caterpillar Tractor in Peoria, Ill., where he worked for 15 years. He also ran a flying school and taught engineering at Bradley University in Peoria, and he spent 11 years at Cummins Engine Co. Inc., working on strategic planning and as a vice president responsible for sales and services of truck engines in the U.S. and Canada. He would move back to Germany in 1978 to head up the Deutz Engine Division of Kloeckner-Humboldt-Duetz AG.
In 1987 he was given the Henry Heald Award, which honors those who have exemplified exceptional ethics and business practices in their field, joining the likes of previous receipients Mees van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller and Jonas Salk. Schultz and his wife, Sheila Harris, formed Harris & Schutz Inc. in 1991 to facilitate the exchange of business knowledge with other leaders.
His book, “The Driving Force: Getting Extra Ordinary Results with Ordinary People,” came out in 2005, and Schutz was a member of both the Premiere Speakers Bureau and the Speakers Group, where he commanded speaking fees of between $20,000 and $40,000 on topics including leadership and business management techniques.
Schutz is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.