How (and how not) Iacocca saved Chrysler

The period between 1968 and 1973 was actually a very good one for the American auto sector. Yet difficulties emerged by the early 1970s. Detroit was far too dependent for profit on large cars and had not paid enough attention to safety or fuel-efficiency. The energy crisis (partly helped by ousting the Iranian Shah), regulatory demands, and a cyclical downturn in the market were instrumental in pushing Chrysler, the weakest of the “Big Three” automobile manufacturers, to the edge.

In July 1979, John Riccardo, the then Chrysler chairman, went public with the depth of Chrysler’s difficulties, admitting that Chrysler was bleeding red ink. Second-quarter losses reached $207 million. As summer turned to fall, the news from Chrysler was bleak. Chrysler’s 1979 $1.2 billion loss was the largest recorded in US corporate history. By the end of 1979, the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Chrysler owed $4 billion, nearly 10% of all US corporate debt. Eighty thousand unsold vehicles worth over $700 million sat on dealer lots. Riccardo called for immediate federal assistance: a $1 billion US tax holiday, a two-year postponement of federal exhaust emission standards (worth $600 million to the company), and concessions from the United Auto Workers. Otherwise, he warned, the company would fail.

Enter Lee Iacocca. By 1964, Iacocca, a Princeton graduate, had already cemented a place in automotive history by bringing out the revolutionary Ford Mustang, which was an immediate and enduring success. Iacocca became Ford president in 1970, until Henry Ford II fired him in 1978. He was hired as president of Chrysler in 1979, tasked with turning around the faltering company.

Iacocca echoed Riccardo warning that without some sort of federal aid, Chrysler would most certainly fail. Chrysler’s impending demise was potentially the largest in history, and for many the company’s crisis represented the end of American postwar economic hegemony and the deindustrialization of North America. As Congress and the Carter administration haggled over the final aspects of a bailout bill, Chrysler faced its darkest days. To avoid running out of money, the company simply stopped paying suppliers. Finally, to the relief of over 250,000 Chrysler workers, in January 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979. The plan provided $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, but required the company to secure another $1.43 billion in private financing, concessions from banks and suppliers.

The turnaround in Chrysler’s fortunes came swiftly and stunningly. In July 1981, just two years after Riccardo’s fateful admission of Chrysler’s dire financial straits, Iacocca announced that the company had turned a profit for the second quarter. Although it was a meager $11.6 million (compared to the company’s 1979-81 losses of $3 billion), these profits were followed by a tidal wave of income, and in 1983 Chrysler paid off its federally guaranteed loans seven years ahead of schedule. Chrysler’s amazing recovery did seem, indeed, to be a miracle, and there was no doubt who had been the miracle worker behind the turnaround.

By the 1980s, Iacocca was heralded as a possible presidential candidate; motivational speakers talked about “Lessons from the Great Leaders: From Hannibal to Iacocca.” He was a television celebrity appearing in Chrysler commercials and in an episode of Miami Vice; even a children’s play was written about his amazing story. In 1985, Iacocca wound up on the cover of Time magazine.

However, the popular version of the Chrysler story with its excessive emphasis in the role of the government is a myth, which clouds and distorts important issues involved in the larger question of business-government relationship. Confronting the Chrysler myth with Chrysler facts reveals Chrysler’s real financial condition and the real impact of those federal guarantees. It shows that if the bailout is indeed the model for an American industrial policy the consequences could be disastrous.

Myth 1: Government loan guarantees prevented the Chrysler Corporation from going bankrupt.

The truth is that the Chrysler has gone bankrupt by every normal definition of the word. Starting from 1979, Chrysler had renegotiated its debts and restructured its organization in a way that greatly resembles a company going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Its creditors, like those of bankrupt firms, were forced to swallow sizeable losses.
This was the result of a clause in the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979 that required creditors to make certain “concessions” to Chrysler. With this clause to exploit and with Treasury Department officials pressuring its creditors, Chrysler was able to pay off more than $600 million in debts. In addition, the company was allowed to convert nearly $700 million in debts into a special class of preferred stock, worthless in the financial markets because the shares earned no dividends and were unredeemable for some time.
Chrysler’s creditors were not alone in being socked by the company’s quasi-bankruptcy. The firm’s workers had paid an even greater price. Despite the fact that the loan guarantees were approved by Congress mainly to protect jobs at Chrysler, the company has sent home nearly half of its employees, cutting its white collar work force by 20,000 and laying off 42,600 of its hourly workers since the loan guarantees were signed into law. Many observers complained that the number of employees laid off at Chrysler in this period is at least as large than the number of jobs that probably would have been lost had Chrysler actually been forced into bankruptcy.

Myth 2: Loan guarantees were justified because Chrysler’s financial problems were brought on by the federal government.

Although federal regulations have certainly played a part in the financial decline of the automobile industry, these rules apply to every firm in the industry, not just Chrysler. It was Chrysler’s management, rather, which put it on the road to bankruptcy. Throughout the late 1930s and into the early 1940s, Chrysler was the second largest car manufacturer in America, ahead of Ford. The company’s problems began shortly after WW2, when it decided to stick with prewar manufacturing and styling methods instead of retooling to meet the expectations of postwar automobile buyers. Ford and GM, in contrast, developed a sleek and streamlined design that sold well.
By the time Chrysler’s management admitted their mistake in the 1950s, the company had slipped to third place among the nation’s automakers. But because Chrysler’s new management reacted by emphasizing sales and production over engineering, the firm’s cars were little more than delayed copies of Ford and GM products. Regulations may have played a part in forcing Chrysler over the edge, but the stage had been set for Chrysler’s problems long before seat belts and bumper standards were a gleam in the regulators’ eyes.

Myth 3: Loan guarantees cost nothing since Chrysler had not gone bankrupt.

Under the provisions of the Loan Guarantee Act, Chrysler was supposed to compensate the federal government for the risk that the government has taken in making the guarantees. The House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs defined this risk as “the difference between the rate that the guaranteed loans carry and the rate that Chrysler would be required to pay if the loans were obtained without the federal guarantees.”
Just how large is the difference between the two rates? In early 1980, Chrysler was able to issue government-guaranteed bonds at an interest rate of only 10.35%, while Ford was forced to pay about 14.5% for its unguaranteed bonds. If Chrysler did not have the loan guarantees, it would almost certainly have to pay a higher interest rate on its bonds than the more secure Ford. In addition, Chrysler paid only 1% government guarantee fee, amounting to $12 million a year. Chrysler attempted to make up the difference by giving the government 14.4 million “warrants,” which are certificates that give the government the right to purchase a share of Chrysler stock at $13 a share. In early 1983, Chrysler publicly demanded that the Treasury Department return the warrants to Chrysler, claiming that cashing in now-valuable warrants would amount to “usury.” Due to adverse public reaction, a Chrysler spokesman said that the company “would not press” the demand at this time. Moreover, Chrysler had petitioned the federal government to reduce the 1% loan guarantee fee to the statutorily mandated minimum of 0.5%.

Myth 4: Chrysler’s top management took deep salary cuts until Chrysler’s financial problems were resolved.

When Chrysler was petitioning the federal government for the financial assistance it wanted, in 1979, the company announced its Salary Reduction Program. Executive salaries were cut 2-10%; Lee Iacocca reduced his salary to one dollar a year (although it was made clear that, under the program, Iacocca would collect the balance of a recruitment bonus due to him in 1980). If Chrysler’s financial performance was adequate after two years, the executives would be eligible to receive retroactive salary payments to make up for these reductions.
Despite the fact that Chrysler lost nearly $500 million in 1981, the Salary Reduction Program ended that year, and executive salaries were restored to their 1979 level. Moreover, the company made retroactive payments to its executives for about two-thirds of the income they lost while the program was in effect, on the theory that its stock price in 1981 was about two-thirds of its 1979 price. Iacocca himself received over $360,000 in salary supplemental payments and director’s fees in 1981.

Myth 5: Chrysler’s profitability showed that it is on the road to financial recovery.

Chrysler’s supporters were elated when the company reported a net profit of over $170 million in the first quarter of 1983 — the largest quarterly profit in the company’s history. Chrysler claimed that cost cutting has been an important factor in the company’s success. At the time, Chrysler’s cost cutting program provided little optimism for long-term profitability.

  • Chrysler’s massive losses in 1979, 1980, and 1981 have given the company large tax deductions to cut its tax bills almost to zero throughout the 1980s.
  • Chrysler boosted R&D spending from $161 million in 1972 to $358 million in 1979 (or $207 million in 1972-equivalent dollars). But between 1979 and 1982, R&D spending was cut to $307 million (only $133 million in 1972 dollars).
  • In January 1982, Chrysler reached an agreement with the UAW to defer $220 million in pension fund contributions.
  • In January 1981, Chrysler negotiated special concessions from the UAW that saved the company more than $600 million in 1981 and 1982.


After suffering a big decline in the period from 1978 to 1983, the industry experienced the benefits of resurgence in consumer confidence that, while not inevitable, was expected in the highly cyclical auto sector. The more general economic turnaround, accompanied by a decline in record-high interest rates that benefited car sales significantly, boosted this confidence. Chrysler’s new products (K-Car and the minivan) were also appealing to consumers. Trade policies helped fuel the Chrysler and Big Three rebound. The 1981 “voluntary export restraints” imposed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration on Japan provided some relief for American carmakers. On his part, Iacocca undertook four major strategic moves, (in addition to restructuring and cost cutting) which helped Chrysler to turnaround its fortunes and eventually go out of the red.

First, Iacocca used Chrysler’s dire situation to convince the vast number of individuals, groups, and interests affected by the crisis (as well as the public) that saving the company his way was the best and only option for Chrysler. Iacocca needed to keep the company afloat while emphasizing the organization’s precarious situation of being “on the brink” to achieve management goals.
Iacocca needed little help in publicizing Chrysler’s situation. Headlines screamed that an estimated 400,000 workers would lose their jobs if Chrysler failed, and that unemployment in Detroit would jump from 8.7% to 16%-19%. The American economy would lose $30 billion or 1.5% of America’s entire GDP. At a time when America’s trade balance was already in sharp deficit, a Chrysler failure would add a further $1.5 billion. These dire warnings became Iacocca’s talking points to the nation. Pragmatism with a dash of patriotism proved to be Iacocca’s most effective tool in convincing Americans of both the severity of the crisis and the need for aid.

Second, Iacocca asked the American government for aid. He had to persuade Americans that government aid through loan guarantees was not only necessary in this case, but also not un-American. Iacocca recalled that during the debate over Chrysler’s fate, “Everybody was beating on us. Everybody saying, ‘How dare you violate the altar of free enterprise and ask for a loan guarantee?’ . . . We did not take taxpayer money. We had a guarantee, but for fifty years they’ve guaranteed.” Unsurprisingly, many both within the auto industry and without saw this as anathema.

Third, Iacocca successfully managed and negotiated the myriad networks of management, unions, suppliers, and banks within the Chrysler constellation to position the company to take advantage of the government loan package. Among Chrysler employees, Iacocca had to fire thousands of managers and salaried staff. On the union side, the UAW leadership was mostly onside and agreed to concessions, though not without acrimony. Similarly, many suppliers initially balked at the concessions required by the company, though they all eventually agreed. Perhaps most difficult of the stars within the Chrysler constellation were the banks.

Fourth, Iacocca made a conscious decision to become the very public face of the company and utilized his skills as a salesperson to create a marketing and communications strategy that made him the central actor in this Chrysler turnaround strategy. Along with communicating to the company’s workers, Iacocca took the step that was perhaps the most pivotal in the Chrysler turnaround story. He leveled with the American people. This effort started small, with Iacocca signing “open letters” to the American people, in the form of full-page newspaper and magazine articles placed at the height of the crisis. The ads attempted to debunk the “myth” of Chrysler’s “gas guzzlers” and clarify Chrysler’s situation. Then came the commercials, which utilized Iacocca’s marketing skills (“If you can find a better car, buy it”) and natural charisma, which helped saving the ailing Chrysler.