Detroit is a strange place, far away from the great cultural cities of New York and San Francisco. The men who run the city’s car companies are local men. They’ve risen to the top of GM, Ford and Chrysler after years of hard, intense work; clawing their way to the top of a huge, Byzantine bureaucracy. Backed-up by minions and and subalterns, these auto execs live in splendid isolation from the rest of the nation. They are out of sight and out of touch.
Unlike most moguls, car executives must have a profound understanding of their customers’ psychological needs. While selling tires or TV sets or erectile dysfunction drugs has little to do with the responsible corporation’s “identity,” automobile buyers form a deep, fundamental attachment to “their” carmaker. If a car exec does not truly understand his customers’ emotional drivers, his customers will drive someone else’s car.
The Big Three’s bosses work is unlike that of any other boss of a major manufacturing operation. In a sense, they must function more like television or movie executives. They must link with their audiences’ daily lives– and dreams– or lose business. They must be one with their sales people– and the “real” people.
And yet, the geography of the business and its “show biz” component makes the men who run Detroit's car companies a culture unto themselves. They live in fancy houses well away from inner city squalor; their private clubs are among the finest in the world. Their social set links them with each other, and connects the major companies like Europe’s nobility linked eighteenth century nation states. They are seldom fired, downgraded or even moved laterally. They are stars in their own little universe. but this universe is distant, and finite.
You could even say these execs live cloistered lives. The Motor City’s Princes and Kings have more privilege and perks than other major executives, yet remain behind closed doors. They make millions from but rarely deal with the Union men who actually build the cars upon which their livelihoods depend. PR flacks protect them from the snooping media. And they seldom deal with the public– beyond an occasional visit to a motor show or a speech written by their media men delivered to some fawning special interest group.
In the world of powerful men, here or in Europe, few live within such a bizarre combination of privilege and insulation.
Like many bosses in industries under assault from "barbarians," Detroit’s isolated auto execs work tirelessly to maintain the status quo. Safe in their gilded cages, they continue to ignore their customers' changing needs. And they continue to build the same products over and over: the same damn automobiles that their fathers and grandfathers built.
Go back 40 years, when I scribbled a story that put me on the Motor City hit list: “The Grosse Pointe Myopians.” The sub-title pretty much outlined the premise: “Accustomed to silver-lined visions, the auto elite refused to see any gray clouds.
“Detroit can fire scattershot numbers to justify practically anything, including slumping sales. However two vivid facts remain after all the ledgers have been shuffled; the domestic automobile industry is not growing as rapidly as expected and imports are making shocking inroads into the American market.”
Remember now, those words were written close to a half-century ago. Nothing, not a damn thing, has changed. Sales continue to slump as the Europeans take more of the upscale market and the Japanese and Koreans (and soon, the Chinese) chisel away at the center and bottom of the market.
More importantly, the “Myopian” component of the domestic car business remains. Leading the near-sighted non-charge: Ford’s Alan Mulally, GM’s Rick Wagoner and Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli. Not one of them has what used to be called “the common touch.” None of them restlessly prowls the dealerships, motor shows or parking lots, away from their minions, trying to get a feel for what their customers really, really want.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spent more time away from the White House than in it. Not so Detroit’s CEOs. They and their executive staff are bunkered. And blind. In fact, Detroit’s leadership hasn’t changed in the slightest way since The Grosse Point Myopians was written at the start of what we might now call the domestic automobile’s “dark ages”.
A radical change in the Big Three’s power structure must take place, and quickly. If not, we could see Motown go away, as the imported cars and trucks seize the total market. Yeah, it’s hard to believe, but the world moves on, and very little in this rapidly shifting world can remain the same.
What’s it going to take to get the “Gross Pointe Myopians” to finally take off their glasses and face cold, hard reality? Do you really want to know?