Lee Iacocca. Picture: AFP/PAUL HAWTHORNE
Lee Iacocca. Picture: AFP/PAUL HAWTHORNE

When I heard on Tuesday night that Lee Iacocca had passed away, I was momentarily taken aback. Not so much because he had died - he was, after all, 94 - but because, for someone who had been such a larger-than-life figure for so much of his career, he had been out of the limelight for so long.

Iacocca first burst into the public consciousness in 1963, when he made the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, standing in front of the brand-new Ford Mustang, which he had (reportedly) masterminded as a top Ford executive. His last public act took place in 1995, when he and the financier Kirk Kerkorian made a foolhardy attempt to take over Chrysler.

Although Iacocca later formed an investment company, and dabbled in this and that, this once-unforgettable figure spent the last two decades of his life, well, forgotten.

In the headline of its obituary, the New York Times described Iacocca as a "visionary automaker who led both Ford and Chrysler". And that's true, as far as it goes.

Having accrued most of the credit for the Mustang, he was promoted to president of Ford by the time he was 46. But in 1978, even though Ford was going great guns, Henry Ford II fired him. Supposedly, he said he was canning Iacocca because he didn't like him.

Then began his tenure at Chrysler, which was on the brink of collapse. He persuaded the federal government to give the company $1.5bn in loan guarantees, and used that money to orchestrate a brilliant turnaround, spearheaded by the Chrysler minivan - a car that, in addition to making the company gobs of money, had a profound impact on US society.

All well and good.

But Iacocca influenced the culture in another way as well. The celebrification of CEOs can be traced directly to him.

Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca - John D Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind - but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it OK for a CEO not just to gain fame, but to desire it.

When had a CEO made himself the centrepiece of his company's ad campaign before Iacocca did it at Chrysler? When had one made himself a selling point in asking the US Congress for help? Or taken a public victory lap the way Iacocca did after the Chrysler turnaround, posing for magazine covers from Life to the Saturday Evening Post? Or publicly mused about running for president?

Oh, and when had a CEO written an autobiography that became one of the bestselling books of all time? Not business books, mind you. Books. Published in 1984, Iacocca: An Autobiography sold more than 7-million copies by the end of the following year.

After Iacocca did it, other CEOs put themselves in their companies' ad campaigns: Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's Company, and Victor Kiam, who owned Remington Products, maker of electric shavers. (His tag line: "I liked it so much, I bought the company.")

CEOs became less bashful about granting interviews and posing for magazine covers. (By 2002, Bill Gates had posed for Fortune's cover 25 times.) Or bragging about their accomplishments to anyone who would listen. (I'm talking to you, Jack Welch.)

And then there were the ghostwritten CEO autobiographies, which poured forth into bookstores. Pizza Tiger, by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza. Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Straight From the Gut, by Welch, CEO of General Electric. Sam Walton: Made in America, by Walmart founder Sam Walton. Father, Son & Co: My Life at IBM, by Thomas Watson jnr.

And lest we forget: The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump. That came out three years after Iacocca's book.

I've long realised that much of my career has been spent taking advantage of the trail Iacocca blazed. My very first business story, in 1982, was about T Boone Pickens's first hostile-takeover attempt. When Pickens decided to write his autobiography a few years later, he hired me as his ghostwriter. (It ended badly for me, but that's another story.)

During my decade at Fortune, getting to know CEOs, interviewing them, writing stories about them - and getting them to pose for the cover - was at the heart of the enterprise. I did a short documentary about Warren Buffett. At the New York Times, my readership always spiked when I wrote a column about Steve Jobs and Apple.

Now, I still find myself drawn to columns about CEOs. Readers care about the comings and goings of CEOs in a way they never did before Lee Iacocca.

So I guess what I should say as I bid adieu to Iacocca is simply this: thank you. Maybe that's what we should all say.

Bloomberg