Who Was Lee Iacocca?
Lee Iacocca joined the Ford Motor Company in 1946. He rose rapidly, becoming president of Ford in 1970. Though Henry Ford II fired Iacocca in 1978, he was soon hired by the nearly bankrupt Chrysler Corporation. Within a few years Chrysler was showing record profits, and Iacocca was a national celebrity. He left Chrysler in 1992 but returned for an ad campaign in 2005.
Lido Anthony Iacocca, generally known as Lee Iacocca, was born to Italian immigrants Nicola and Antonietta in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924. Iacocca suffered a serious bout of rheumatic fever as a child, and as a result he was found medically unfit for military service in World War II. During the war, he attended Lehigh University as an undergraduate. He then received a master's degree in engineering from Princeton University.
"I was raised to give back. I was born to immigrant parents and was fortunate to become successful at an early age." - Lee Iacocca
Climbing the Ranks at Ford and the Mustang
Iacocca's engineering degree landed him a job at the Ford Motor Company in 1946. He soon left engineering for sales, where he excelled, then worked in product development. Iacocca also moved up the ranks at Ford, becoming a vice president and general manager of the Ford division by 1960. One of Iacocca’s accomplishments was helping to bring the iconic Mustang — an affordable, stylish sports car — to the market in 1964.
In 1970, Iacocca became Ford's president. However, the straight-talking Iacocca clashed with Henry Ford II, scion of the Ford family and chairman of the auto company. The tense relationship between the two led to Ford firing Iacocca in 1978.
A few months after leaving Ford, Iacocca was hired to head the Chrysler Corporation, which was then in such financial distress that it was in danger of bankruptcy. Under Iacocca's leadership, Chrysler received $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees; at the time, it was the largest amount of government assistance that a private company had ever received. This gave Iacocca the breathing room he needed to revamp and streamline operations.
During Iacocca’s tenure, the popular minivan was added to the Chrysler vehicle lineup. Iacocca also served as a spokesman in television ads, promising anyone who test drove a Chrysler $50 if they ended up buying a similar car from a competitor. The company edged into profitability in 1981 and repaid its government loans in 1983, years ahead of schedule. In 1984, Chrysler made more than $2.4 billion, a record for the corporation.
Iacocca's success in turning Chrysler around made him a national celebrity. President Ronald Reagan asked him to help coordinate fundraising efforts for the restoration of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Two books written by Iacocca, his 1984 autobiography Iacocca and Talking Straight (1988), became best-sellers. He even made an appearance on the popular 1980s TV show Miami Vice.
Life After Chrysler
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. He was then able to devote more time to the Iacocca Family Foundation, a charity that supports diabetes research (Iacocca's first wife, Mary, suffered from diabetes and died from complications related to the disease).
"Philanthropy is now a big part of my life, with the Iacocca Foundation funding cutting-edge research to find a cure for diabetes." - Lee Iacocca
Iacocca also worked with Kirk Kerkorian on an attempted hostile takeover of Chrysler in the mid-1990s. Despite the thwarted takeover attempt, Iacocca resumed his role as a Chrysler pitchman in 2005, appearing in ads with Jason Alexander and Snoop Dogg. Iacocca's compensation for the commercials was sent to his foundation. He remained a booster for the U.S. car industry, though his frustration with both public and private leadership was the subject of his third book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? (2007).
Spouses and Family
After losing his first wife in 1983, Iacocca married Peggy Johnson from 1986 to 1987. He had another short-lived marriage to Darrien Earle from 1991 to 1994. In his later years, he enjoyed spending time with his two daughters, Kathryn and Lia, from his first marriage and his grandchildren.
Iacocca died on July 2, 2019, in Bel Air, California.
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