I'm proud to be a first generation American and prouder still to be raised by two of the finest parents anyone could ever have. My father, Nicola, first came here from Italy when he was twelve years old. Nineteen years later, he'd saved enough to travel back to get my grandmother. How's that for determination? It was on that same trip back that he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Antoinette. Fortunately for both of us, he was charming enough that she came back too.
Growing up, our family lived in the steel making belt of Pennsylvania where my father opened and ran a hot dog restaurant that still stands today - Yocco's, which is how the Pennsylvania Dutch pronounced Iacocca. After high school, I went somewhere very different, but not very far away: Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. I left four years later with some great experiences under my belt, a degree in industrial engineering and a Wallace Memorial Fellowship to Princeton University (where I had the good fortune of attending during Albert Einstein's tenure). After Princeton, I landed my first job as an engineer at the Ford Motor Company.
It didn't take long for me to realize that I was better suited to the sales and marketing side of the car business. The bosses agreed and soon I made the move. After leading several successful initiatives, I began to move up the ranks, ultimately finding my true calling in product development. It was also during this period that I married my beautiful wife, Mary, with whom I would have two amazing daughters, Kathryn and Lia. With my family by my side, I continued my ascent within the Ford company.
Becoming president of Ford in my forties was a dream come true for the son of immigrants. The 1960s were an incredible period for us at the company, marking the launch of the Ford Mustang and Lincoln Continental Mark III, among others. Our success continued into the 70s, but by the end of the decade Henry Ford II and I could no longer co-exist. In 1978, I was fired despite the fact that we'd netted a $2 billion profit for the year. Of course, though I may not have realized it at the time, some of my best years were still ahead of me.
At first, being hired to head up Chrysler seemed like going from the frying pan into the fire. This venerable company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I had some tough decisions to make. To save the company, I had to lay off some workers, sell off our European division and close several plants. And of course, I had to secure the now famous loan we received from Congress-which I paid back early with interest.
Once Chrysler was solvent, our next step was to seriously rethink the market. We realized that there was a simultaneous need for two very different types of vehicles. The first was a more fuel-efficient, "compact" vehicle (the country was in the midst of a serious fuel crisis). The second was a concept vehicle that inspired me to bring over my old friend Hal Sperlich from Ford. Together, we spearheaded development of a prototype we'd initially kicked the tires on at Ford - the minivan. The minivan was a phenomenal success, and a precursor to the SUV.
But while the early 1980s were years of great career success, they were also ones of great personal loss as Mary finally succumbed to her diabetes in 1983. It was after her passing that we began The Iacocca Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease. (Since I've been retired, this has become a primary focus of my energies and I'm optimistic we may still find a cure in my lifetime.)
After Mary's passing, I poured myself back into work. Chrysler continued its resurgence as the decade went along, acquiring AMC and Jeep in 1987. When I retired from the company in 1992, it was in great shape. I was 68 years old and frankly, feeling a little bored. At that point, I considered everything from public office to the Commissionership of Major League Baseball. None quite intrigued me enough to sign on, so I took the consulting route instead.
After several years of consulting, I finally and officially retired from the private sector... for a while. In 2000, my son-in-law and I launched Olivio Premium Products, a line of products made from olive oil. I finally faced the fact that I had flunked retirement. Today, I spend most of my time working with the Foundation, the Iacocca Institute, and other philanthropic endeavors. My frustration with our nation's lack of leadership propelled me to write Where Have All the Leaders Gone? I can't sit on the sidelines while this nation needs me.