By Dick Ruzzin
What kind of a designer was he?
This has to be the first question for me. You could give Chuck no greater compliment than to say that he was a car designer. He was outstanding and everyone at Design Staff knew it. It was why he moved up to be the Vice President, not without some difficulty. He set the standard and we all learned from Chuck, especially when we took a clay model outside. Chuck was recognized by the design profession around the world as a great designer. He loved the European shows, meeting all the designers from around the world and talking about the latest Ferrari or Corvette. He especially liked the Italian designers.
While at Opel he shocked the European designers with the Opel CD, the Manta and the Rekord. All were beautifully conceived and superbly executed. Chuck even had the nerve to bring the Rekord sedan back here to the States to show it to Bill Mitchell for production approval in front of the Board of Directors, which was a big risk. He got through it with very little correction.
When Ferry Porsche showed Chuck the new VW 914 in Frankfurt he told Chuck that “No designer had touched it.” Chuck just smiled and said, “It looks like it.”
What kind of a person was he?
Chuck was a person of high contrasts, he was fair and consistent and he had the highest standards. He taught Sunday school early in his career and car design at a local high school after he retired. Between those two time frames he led the largest automotive design staff in the world at different levels of responsibility and he led it very well for many years. When it came to work he was always very serious and direct and he did not mince words. He never mentioned his personal life and reluctantly spoke of his family. At work there was no room for distraction as he was very focused on his tasks.
Some people may have taken his singular focus on design as an aloofness or arrogance, it was neither of those. He understood the immense importance of the job and wanted to make every minute count to achieve the very best design solution for every design program. He was a stellar example of design professionalism, in almost forty years I never heard him utter an off color word. Chuck had a good sense of humor and used it judiciously, he really enjoyed humorous banter with anyone from a sweeper to a Design or Corporate executive.
If people did not perform as expected he let them know and he responded positively when they did. During my career he called me to task sharply three times. Twice he was completely right and my responses were positively recognized. The third time he was wrong. I called him on it and explained my actions. He accepted the response and apologized to me. Needless to say I was impressed.
Possibly more than anyone else that I worked with he was the most completely dedicated to the success of General Motors and worked very hard to achieve the best within his power. This was sometimes seen by the Corporation, right or wrong on it’s part, as too forceful and over the top. He pushed them to the limit when required even to his own personal career detriment.
Chuck was straight forward with his people, whether they liked it or not. If they did not it was because they did not understand their true value or capability. He tried to make people exceed their capabilities. When people surprised him by achieving above their assumed level he acknowledged and credited them.
He loved cars, new ones more so than old ones, and had a special affection for Ferraris of all kinds. His one regret regarding cars was that he did not buy enough Ferraris.
He had the final say on what was “Good Enough,” what would be accepted, or to be further pursued. He challenged people to do better, often this was misunderstood as harsh behavior, here the delivery of the message was confused with the true intent or benefit.
He was careful to use more than one source of information in difficult and stressful situations. Chuck emerged from the Earl-Mitchell style of “management by fear” that was common throughout the industrial revolution, and after WWII with his own style that helped later to form a more people friendly relationship between management and workers.
What kind of a leader was he?
Chuck was an excellent design leader, and more importantly, an outstanding manager.
It is important to note that he did not manage everyone in the same way, and few understood this. It took me years to see that some of his designers required little direction from him while others needed constant attention. The ones that required little direction were ultimately placed in positions that were the most challenging. This was perceived by the needy ones as interference but in reality he was personally helping them achieve the desired goals.
Chuck filled in the gaps that people that were in his upper management team had with his own direction. I am sure he did not want to do this, but would if he had to. He would brag about studios that had done something special without his help. This was to demonstrate that he really valued the input by those responsible for the design and that he preferred not to interfere. He had his finger on the pulse of the building and was respected for his leadership by everyone.
He went into my office one afternoon in Cadillac Studio. We were the closest studio to the viewing yard. I went in and asked him if he wanted a coffee or something. He said no and asked me to sit down for a minute, I sensed an unusual situation as he was acting very different than normal. I wondered what he wanted as he looked very tired.
He then shocked me by saying, “I just came in from the patio. Sometimes this job is really hard. Not everybody is easy to work with like you guys.” I was floored. I then understood more clearly the treatment that we were receiving, how much he trusted the studio and valued what we were doing and how we were doing it.
I explained what had happened to my designers. We then noticed that he would often come in to just talk and joke around. He would glance at the models, but just rest for a few minutes, make a few comments, and leave. This trusting behavior helped us immensely, as we were designing both the Eldorado and Seville at the same time. The only time in my career that I experienced that responsibility as a Chief Designer.
Chuck was a strong person both physically and mentally, but suddenly I saw the immense pressure that he was under as Vice President. Yet, he did not waiver, on his last day of work as the Vice President of Design he gathered all of his Directors in his office and handed out assignments even though he would not be there to see them finished.
He was missed by all of us very much, even more as time went on.
What was he like to work with or for?
I enjoyed working for Chuck very much. I worked to earn his trust and was given great freedom for many years. I came to feel that I worked with him and not for him and this was very evident during the Cadillac programs (Seville and Eldorado). At that time he treated me as an equal as we struggled to achieve the desired results for Cadillac. This was a very challenging time for Chuck, the biggest challenge that he would face in his six year assignment as Vice President of Design Staff.
After eighteen months as Vice President he was able to present the designs for the 1992 Eldorado and Seville to corporate management. They both had rave reviews in product clinics. His careful management of the Cadillac effort at Design resulted in an excellent result under extreme corporate scrutinity and the required high expectations.
I grew to be very straight forward with him, and my designers learned to be that way also. With me he was more of an observer but we always sought his approval. Normally when Chuck came into a studio, everything stopped and a little show would be put on to explain the current direction. In Cadillac he would just wave us on. The situation was well understood. I responded once when asked what it was like during the Cadillac days, how was management to work with? I said: “There were no captains. Every one bails when the ship is sinking.” That was true. Cadillac sales were a disaster as the corporation required an inappropriate response from Cadillac resulting in cars that were too small for the customers. Chuck acted like we were all equals from the first day I went in to the day I left.
How did he deal with the increasing (usually negative) influence of other priorities (Marketing, Finance, Engineering, Manufacturing) over Design?
I do not recall Chuck really having any great battles with manufacturing or engineering. He did have some but trusted us to fight to get the best out of everyone. He did make comparisons with other products and would show up in difficult meetings to support us. I think in Germany he really had to fight to get the Rekord Coupe into production. I think that was a financial issue.
Chuck did fight for design—this was remembered when I went to Germany because I was told by Opel engineering that they wanted me to “Fight for design the way Chuck Jordan did when he was here.”
Many thanks to Dick Ruzzin. Published by permission.