If you have any interest in cars, or one of the biggest industries in the U.S., you have to read Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist blog.
A writer like De Lorenzo is important in any field worth studying because it’s important to read someone who’s not impressed by anyone. Cynics are not popular, but they’re at least as often right as they are wrong. And as you read De Lorenzo‘s 2014-in-the-automotive industry tome, the impression you get is that De Lorenzo is impressed by no one:
Welcome to this “thing” called the automobile business. Like a Dead Air Circus twisting in the wind, the automobile business writ large here moves in fits and starts in a two steps forward, three back pirouette of ignominy, one that provides a constant thrum of mediocrity, a sinister Motor City soundtrack of “dark noise” if you will that is always there, looming in the background.
Is it all tedium? Thankfully, no, not by a long shot.
We are enjoying the finest cars and trucks in automotive history, and at every price point too. We’re also bathing in a golden era of performance, one that few thought would sustain itself as we march ever forward to a No Fun culture that pillories the automobile at every turn.
The looming societal storm clouds can’t dampen the inherent goodness and level of technology found in the average cars of today. It’s simply staggering to contemplate the advanced technology, fuel efficiency and general level of excellence available in even the most mainstream of automobiles available. If you had predicted the level of technology and efficiency that would be available in a typical Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Camry even as recently as ten years ago most people would have scoffed at the notion.
There are no bad cars anymore because the price of entry in order to compete in this, the most competitive market in automotive history, goes up with each passing quarter. Combine that with the ever-escalating regulatory demands for more safety and more efficiency, and you have a never-ending upward spiral demanding even more overall excellence that consumes this industry’s every waking hour. And all of that is wonderful and a reason to be optimistic about this business.
But, well, there’s always a “but” when it comes to the car business.
Once again we were blessed or haunted (depending on how you look at it) by an assortment of crackpots, a few actual visionaries, hordes of recalcitrant twerps, legions of spineless weasels, the obligatory egomaniacal dictators (with special emphasis on the first syllable), an unfortunately high quotient of unmitigated hacks, and of course the True Believers, because if it weren’t for their diligence, this business would implode on itself all over again.
This was the Year of the Recall, the Year of Sergio, the Year of Horsepower, the Year of Mary and for a lot of reasons, the Year from Hell.
How can that be, you say? Everyone’s making money hand over fist as the national frenzy for crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks seems to know no bounds. It’s all good, right? Yes, until it isn’t that is.
Don’t let those supercharged sales numbers go to your heads, because in typical Detroit fashion what goes up like a rocket comes down with a resounding thud. It always has and it always will. And just as the executives at the car companies here in the Motor City begin to believe their press clippings and start to think that maybe, just maybe this blissful state of soaring sales is going to stay hot forever, well, things are bound to get weird.
Though I’ve often written about the good things going on in this business, the constant misdeeds and missteps that seem to dog this industry and its players at a relentless cadence consume most of my time. That there are three dumb moves for every two smart ones in this business is a given and has been proven out over time. And to the industry honchos who are absolutely convinced that it won’t happen – or is not happening under their watch – I’ve got news: You can’t really control it; you can only hope to contain it.
De Lorenzo writes about Chrysler, now owned by Fiat …
The name is Sloan. Alfredo Sloan. The all-knowing and all-powerful leader of the Fiat Chrysler enterprise has been anointed The Altruistic Savior of all he surveys by the bootlicking hordes in “the media,” portrayed as the man who pulled the doddering old Chrysler out of the depths of despair while giving its huddling, downtrodden masses who were facing a certain death sentence a reason to live. And it’s all unmitigated bullshit too.
Marchionne is a shrewd, make that brilliant deal maker who happened to be in the right place at the right time and who was able to abscond with the car company formerly known as Chrysler lock, stock and barrel for the staggeringly paltry sum of $6 billion, all in. And in one fell swoop he gave the idle aristocracy who inherited the Fiat “empire” – and had almost run it into the ground once and for all – another lease on life. For that he has been granted career canonization the likes of which has never been seen before in this business, sort of an Alfredo Sloan for our times.
But then again there’s another side to Sergio that isn’t sexy, glamorous or all knowing, which is why it continuously goes unreported.
Marchionne’s brilliance when it comes to putting together big picture deals is unquestioned. Let’s face it, anyone who can walk away with the Jeep brand for the above-mentioned sum and get the rest of Chrysler in the bargain is a frickin’ genius.
But The Other Sergio is a plodding, micro-managing maniac who believes that Fiat Chrysler employees – no matter what the level – should be happy that they’re allowed to be in his presence. And for that, and the occasional opportunity to be bathed in the warmth from the glow as The Great One passes them in the hallway, they get a shockingly head-in-sand management approach – a time-tested legacy of the Fiat “empire” that’s unwanted and unwarranted – yet shoved down the throats of the Auburn Hills faithful with astonishing regularity.
The ingrained backwardness with which the Italians approach everything actually has the denizens in Auburn Hills reeling from having to dumb down the way they do things to appease their Italian handlers on a daily basis. Sergio’s espresso-swilling minions regularly ignore hard-earned and hard-won lessons that have stood the test of time in this business in favor of doing things “their” way, even if it jeopardizes the company’s competitive standing in the market or it costs the company millions in do-overs and start overs.
The arrogance of the Italian overlords running Chrysler now rivals the arrogance displayed by the German overlords back when Daimler had its crack at the keys to the Jeep-Truck kingdom. Combine that with their openly hostile attitude, which states that every supplier who brings an idea or a product to them can, as they often say, “cut your number in half and then we’ll talk.” It’s a wonderful way to build trust in the supplier community and an even better way to ensure that FCA misses out on leading-edge technology and thinking across all disciplines.
And Sergio’s latest management brainstorm is to jettison anyone over 50 (no, you won’t read this anywhere else) because they’ve become liabilities and are not forward thinking enough. Top-notch, seasoned executives are being shown the door in favor of young, inexperienced replacements with the inevitable result: The young hires are being blown out and replaced by similarly young and inexperienced people and guess why? They can’t do the work because they don’t have enough experience. It’s a revolving door of mediocrity that just keeps doubling up on itself. Meanwhile, the senior-level managers, sensing the tide, are gathering in droves at the door clamoring for a way out.
… Government — I mean General — Motors …
Pardon me for thinking that we’d heard the last from Dan Akerson, that loathsome and now legendary carpetbagging tool who held the reins of GM in his hands for three-and-one-half excruciatingly painful years. Forgive me for thinking that the Unctuous Prick would take his leave and quietly retreat to the friendly confines of Washington, D.C., so he could regale his cronies how he survived his near-charitable stint in the hinterlands, trying to impart his wisdom to the poor unfortunates who toiled away in such a pathetically backward business that it’s a wonder it functioned at all before he got there. And please cut me some slack, because I thought that after such an embarrassing run at the top of what was once America’s industrial showpiece, where he was simply reviled and despised at every level of the corporation, that Akerson would keep his mouth shut, especially in the midst of the biggest crisis in the company’s history (other than the bankruptcy, of course).
No such luck, however.
Safely ensconced back hard by the Potomac, the former CEO gets his chance to obfuscate, deny and continue his game of self-entitled outrage at GM’s so-called “culture” laced with his usual cloying air of superiority – his M.O. for three-and-a-half tedious and tiresome years while at the helm of GM – in an interview by David Shephardson in Monday’s The Detroit News. Why Shephardson thought it would be a good thing to let Akerson pontificate once more is questionable but in the end he did us all a great service, because the depth and breadth of Akerson’s gift of self-delusion is there for all to see. I view the interview now as yet another important entry into The Historical Document of Bullshit marking Akerson’s Reign of Terror at General Motors.
Playing his Sergeant Schultzian “I know nothing” defense to perfection, Akerson blamed GM’s culture and didn’t own up to anything, except that he was a genius for promoting Mary Barra. In one particularly telling passage, Akerson railed at Internet chatter calling the suggestion that GM could soften criticism of its mishandling of the recall by promoting the first woman to lead an automaker ridiculous, adding, “fools can say anything… We have four women on the board. You’d have to be so cynical. You’d have to be a terrible person to even (think it).” Akerson called the suggestions “hurtful.”
Well, boo-fricking-hoo, Dan. Do you really want to know what’s hurtful? Having to listen to you bob and weave and pretend you knew nothing. Having to sit there and listen to the relentless stream of unmitigated bullshit that comes out of your mouth, with you operating under the assumption that if you’re saying it, we must believe it to be true, because after all, you’re the great Dan Akerson, and we’re not.
Instead, it’s an outrageous insult to everyone’s intelligence who ever played this game (except to those you favored and promoted, of course).
That’s right, Dan, you, the Unctuous Prick who openly loathed every last inch of this business to its core, and who regularly regaled your buddies on how just backward, unseemly and pathetic the auto business really was.
You, the guy who insulted the hard-working people of GM on a regular basis and in such condescending fashion that the common refrain I heard from seasoned, talented individuals throughout the corporation was that you were an abject embarrassment that they wished would just go away.
You, who had so little respect for the history of this business or the people who came before you that you dismissed it all with a wave of the hand as being inconsequential and irrelevant, that you and your Telecommies had more smarts in your fingernails than anyone in this town or in this business would ever accumulate.
You, who professed your “love” for this city while not once living here, instead parachuting in to the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel when you had to be here while having your Chief PR Bagman, Selim Bingol (aka Unctuous Prick Jr.), try to paste together the story that you were a “car guy” who was just trying to do what was best for the company, because clearly the “little people” laboring there didn’t have a clue.
You, who held such little regard for the complexities of the business that you once bragged to an underling, “You could run product development, hell, I could run product – it’s not that hard.”
You, who followed that up by promoting Bob Ferguson – GM’s Chief lobbyist, of all things – to run the Cadillac Division globally, even though he had not one shred of perspective or qualification to do so, saying in not so subtle fashion that he was a smart guy and he wasn’t one of “them” – meaning one of the poor unfortunates who make up the backbone of this business who were toiling away at the company while you preened and pranced before them spewing insults in their direction.
How did all that work out for you, Dan?
The High-Octane Truth of the matter is that the company survived in spite of you. Those people whom you insulted and treated so condescendingly on a daily basis? Those True Believers are solely responsible for the product hits that GM has in the market today.
It certainly wasn’t you, Dan, not by a long shot. Let’s not forget that you were plucked from boardroom obscurity by the most incompetent board in corporate America because you had the temerity to raise your hand in a board meeting when the subject of running the company came up, and you deluded yourself somehow into thinking that happenstance was a mandate of some sort that simply didn’t exist.
That “Accidental Tourist of a CEO” moniker? You earned it and everyone knew it. You’re just lucky that GM’s board was so singularly incompetent, because if a boardroom coup could have been properly mounted, you would have been toast and you know it. You had only a handful of supporters and even fewer defenders. The rest? You misconstrued those smiles as meaning people actually liked you. No, Dan, they loathed you, and they did what they had to do to get by, which meant marking their desk calendars daily with big a red “X” praying that this would be the day that you would finally leave.
You were a walking-talking embarrassment from the get-go, simply a ridiculous spectacle fueled by a maniacal, runaway ego that knows no bounds, a Captain Queeg for a new age, couching everything in juvenile, bombastic, militaristic banter that had Navy people writing me embarrassed that you were dragging your naval background into the proceedings.
You are the quintessential definition of a carpetbagger. You had no affinity for the business or the people who worked in it whatsoever. You dismissed this industry as a backwater embarrassment and you were just biding your time until you could find something better, hoping there was a huge payday at the end. Instead, you made your escape back to Private Equity before the shit hit the fan. Nicely done.
“Terrible person”? That moniker happens to fits you to a “T”, Akerson.
Now, please do us all a favor and shut up. (“THE UNCTUOUS PRICK RETURNS FOR ONE LAST HURRAH.” – July 30, 2014)
… Ford Motor Co. …
When you live around here, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “working at Ford’s.” You’ll never hear that when people discuss working at the other car companies, and that is because “working at Ford’s” means working directly or indirectly for the Ford family, who still retain control and very much a vibrant interest in the family business, which, lest we forget, is one of the most important industrial legacies in America and part of the very fabric of this nation.
In the global automobile business as it is defined today the Ford Motor Company remains a unique operation, a family-owned and run business that stands out among the faceless corporate entities that make up the rest. Yes, there are family legacies at some of the other car companies around the world, but Ford is different and will always be different.
And that is because the Ford family cares. They care about the company’s role in providing for so many families in the community, they care about the family’s historical legacy, and they care that the Ford Motor Company continues to deliver a kaleidoscope of effective transportation choices for people all around the world.
And the fact that the family does care has endeared the Ford Motor Company to people around here in a way that the other car companies in town never will.
The members of the Ford family work in and around the company in various capacities, too, with William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman, the most visible. It is simply extraordinary that the family has remained engaged and involved in the company for 110 years, and that’s due to the fact that they have never slacked off or “phoned it in” but instead have kept the flame and the family legacy alive for generations to come.
The passing of William Clay Ford does mark the end of an era, as he was the last living connection to the very beginnings of the automobile business.
But it’s also a reaffirmation of a most remarkable legacy, one that William Clay Ford Jr. and the other members of the Ford family will now proudly carry on. (“A MOST REMARKABLE LEGACY.” – March 10, 2014)
… the apparently crazy world of automotive PR:
PR brawlers, really? It may be surprising to some who are new to the whole Public Relations game, but the inner workings of big-league PR are usually in direct contrast to the rigidly controlled, politically correct images that PR handlers so carefully craft for their CEO charges.
Behind the scenes it’s a back-alley brawl stopping just short – but not always, I might add – from fisticuffs. Depending on the day, PR handlers in the car biz fight with journalists, editors, TV news show producers, other PR handlers from rival car companies, professional company irritants, pitchfork-wielding anti-car safety advocates and environmental groups, and an assortment of “vermin” – as they see it – who come out of the woodwork to threaten their boss, or the company, or both.
The modern PR handler’s array of weaponry includes scathing email diatribes and verbal threats, political maneuvers and story plants carried out through mainstream and social media platforms, and good old-fashioned finger jabs to the chest delivered in person, just to name a few. (“SHARP TONGUES AND SHARPER ELBOWS, THE ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE WORLD OF MODERN PR LIVE AND IN COLOR.” – October 22, 2014)
… and the industry in general:
There aren’t? You gotta be frickin’ kiddin’ me! I caught a lot of car companies chasing their tails at the New York Auto Show, ignoring the two most enduring tenets of the business, which are:1. It’s about The Product. It always has been and it always will be too.
2. Design is still the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. If you don’t have it, you can’t hide it. And if, as a manufacturer, you go all vanilla hoping to offend the fewest people, you’ll probably end up attracting the fewest people as well.
And if there’s a third, it’s this: There are no Magic Beans to be found in this business.
Instead it’s about designing, engineering and building fundamental product goodness and having the focused consistency not to waver from that mission.
It’s about creating products that are emotionally compelling to look at, fun to drive and rewarding to own.
And it’s about adhering to the core competencies of the brand. In other words, whatever you’re good at and whatever your reputation is based upon, you better deliver on that promise. Anything less and you will get lost in the shuffle, or just get lost, period.And of course it’s about not veering into niches or segments that you don’t belong in, no matter how enticing they are.