August 13, 2018 06:01 CET
It’s been 20 years since most of us have laid eyes on Inaki Lopez, the former General Motors and Volkswagen purchasing czar and surely the most controversial global auto executive of the 1990s.
Lopez nearly died in a car wreck in Bilbao in his native Basque region of Spain in 1998. The accident left him in a coma for months, affected his memory and caused personality changes, his lawyers said at the time.
Yet there was Lopez this month in Amorebieta, Spain, his birthplace, looking better at 77 than we might have expected — a little shaky when he walked, but still with that blazing intensity in his eyes.
The fanatically energetic Lopez, whose ability to mesmerize underlings was mythical, attended a 25th anniversary celebration for ACICAE, the automotive industry consortium for the Basque region. Our German-language sister publication, Automobilwoche, which received an award at the event, was represented by Publisher Helmut Kluger, who chatted briefly with the man himself.
Lopez remains the stuff of legend, with a history that goes something like this: As head of GM global purchasing in the early ’90s, he revolutionized the industry by ripping up long-standing contracts, ending cozy relationships and demanding ever-lower prices. He was a sort of industry spiritualist who spoke in aphorisms. For suppliers, he was a prophet of doom.
In 1993, he jumped to Volkswagen when CEO Ferdinand Piech promised to build a car plant in the Basque region, fulfilling Lopez’s great dream. In a moment of high industry drama, GM CEO Jack Smith worked desperately behind the scenes to persuade Lopez to stay — and thought he had succeeded. A press conference in March that year was scheduled to announce that Lopez would be given the powerful new position of president of GM’s North American operations.
But a shaken, embarrassed and tearful Smith came on stage to tell reporters that Lopez had left the building an hour before and already was on his way to Wolfsburg. Almost immediately, GM accused Lopez and three purchasing executives who left with him of stealing confidential documents. GM filed a civil suit accusing Lopez and VW of racketeering, fraud, stealing secrets and other misdeeds.
German authorities began a criminal investigation and raided the men’s offices and homes. Criminal charges were brought against the four former GM executives in 1996, but in 1998, prosecutors dropped them in a settlement that required the men to donate money to charity. GM agreed to an out-of-court settlement. Lopez resigned from VW in 1996.
Lopez always denied stealing corporate secrets and insisted the documents he took when he left GM were his personal property.
In the years since the accident, which occurred not long after Lopez left VW, he has lived quietly in Spain and worked part time as a consultant. He never realized his dream of establishing a car manufacturing plant for his Carmen brand in the Basque country. But in Amorebieta, he was able to exhibit a model of the Carmen car from 1997 as he stood alongside Basque Prime Minister Inigo Urkullu.
Kluger managed to edge alongside Lopez during the ACICAE event and engage in a little auto industry chitchat. He asked the former industry titan about the next Volkswagen Group board member for purchasing. It was a short conversation. Lopez’s only comment was that the executive would, unfortunately, not be a Basque.
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