As head of purchasing for GM in Europe, Lopez – known as Inaki by his disciples, and fond of Don Quixote – pioneered all sorts of ruthlessly efficient cost-saving and ‘lean manufacturing’ techniques.
GM’s Chairman Jack Smith parachuted the Spanish wizard into Detroit, and after just a year in the hot seat Lopez had stopped the General haemorrhaging cash, slashing $1.1bn from its annual purchasing bill.
In Germany, VW’s chairman Ferdinand Piech decided Lopez was the man to streamline the group’s unacceptably high cost base. Piech apparently promised to build a car factory in the Basque region, a showcase for Lopez’s genius (his ultimate gameplan was called Plateau 6) on his home turf, and GM countered with the top job in the US.
Lopez agreed, and Smith was literally about to announce the appointment at a press conference when an aide passed him a note saying: ‘Sorry, I changed my mind.’
This didn’t impress Smith. Not to mention that Lopez allegedly brought several million secret documents with him as he headed to Wolfsburg, a whole headful of what GM regarded as its intellectual property, and immediately targeted around 30 top Opel execs.
There followed years of expensive litigation and transatlantic mud-slinging, with accusations of industrial espionage, copyright infringement and racketeering. Criminal charges were brought in German and US courts.
In 1997, VW stumped up $100m to GM, and agreed to buy $1bn worth of components from the company up to 2004. A statement was issued by VW that admitted no liability, but said that there was ‘the possibility that illegal activities’ might have occurred.
In May 2000, the US Justice Department sought Lopez’s extradition to stand trial in Detroit, but the Spanish authorities ruled a year later that he couldn’t be extradited. Badly injured in a car crash in 1998, Lopez is said to suffer from dementia but now dabbles in property.