By on April 10, 2009

I listened with some outrage and frustration to an NPR interview with Chrysler’s “president” at the NY Auto Show this AM. It was a farrago (my apologies, Robert) of clueless questions. The interviewer didn’t have any command of the history or the facts of Chrysler’s descent into disgrace. He might as well have been interviewing The Wizard of Oz about his plans for conquering the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys. (About the same reality level.) So here’s my question for TTAC’s Best and Brightest: what set of questions and/or facts should a reporter use when interviewing motor industry flacks and executives? The MSM needs to burn off the smoke and smash the mirrors. Let’s give them a hand.

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46 Comments on “Ask the Best and Brightest: What Would You Have the MSM Ask the Auto Industry’s Best and Brightest?...”

  • avatar

    Mr. Henderson, can you please remove your head from Mr. Wagoner’s ass so we can continue the interview?

  • avatar

    The auto industry has a “best” or “brightest?” News to me.

  • avatar

    The problem is it doesn’t really matter what you ask, you won’t really learn much. Makes you miss Maximum Bob all that much more. At least he SAID something.

    Then you have the question as statement angle, like in the White House press room. The journalist makes a statement in the form of a question to try and force a useful answer, or even to try and make their own news story. Rarely works either, and when done poorly is just sad.

    Both of the real investigative reporters left are rather busy, and underpaid, but I will leave it up to them to figure out what to ask. I wonder if they are the same two who buy the station wagons.

  • avatar
    Jonathan I. Locker

    The one question that is constantly avoided…

    “How many vehicles total (or broken down by segment) do you need to sell in order to break even?”

    And of course the follow up question:

    “And when do you expect to sell that number of vehicles?”

    These are the two REAL questions that no one is asking, and I have a feeling that no one WANTS to ask these questions…we would be horrified at the answers.

  • avatar


    “best” and “brightest” is a relative term…

    Here are the questions I would ask GM:

    “Assuming you had free reign to break franchise laws protecting dealers, which brands would you keep?”

    “Why do you think that cutting fixed costs without noticeably improving the design of your vehicles relative to your competition is a winning strategy in the long term?”

    “How can you justify making 100 times more compensation than your average hourly employee when your company hasn’t turned a profit in nearly a decade?”

    “How do you plan to deal with your dealer networks and improving customer service at the point of sale, which is where your reputation really gets made?”

    “What product planning changes are you making to ensure you have a diverse product range in the future so that you don’t get caught relying too heavily on one line of business?”

  • avatar

    Question: What are the 3 most common reasons given by those who bought a competing product for not buying your products and what are you doing to address those issues.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    How are your Chinese lessons coming along?

  • avatar

    @jpcavanaugh: I doubt you’ll get three honest answers there.

    I think the problem is that any answer they give you won’t be the truth. The perception gap, “legacy costs,” and whatever else will come up to any question given won’t be the black and white honest-to-God truth. Especially from management. Especially from P.R. The engineeers and design teams, well, maybe you’ll get closer to the truth. That’s how the structures work, and the lines will be well-rehearsed before they are ever spoken.

    I think back to the question R.F. asked Lutz about his pension being bankruptcy-proof – that was a good one. David Gregory’s question on Meet the Press about Fritz Henderson’s salary was also biting, but then again, it’s not quite push going all the way to shove.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    “Would you be willing to drive your cheapest model for the next ten years?”

    An automaker’s answer to this question would likely reflect how high of a regard they have for their products… and their customers.

  • avatar

    Stewart, this is the best question posed to the B&B yet on this site (and I am the author of one). My input:

    “What metrics do you use to measure your market performance and what are your and your competitor’s measured values for those metrics?”
    “Please enumerate 5 business model advantages that you don’t currently have that you believe you must have to be competitive”
    “What current car model targets a specific demographic”
    Follow up: “How does it not overlap with Model X or any of your other offerings?”

  • avatar

    I’d have to ask them the same question that I would like to ask any CEO or VP: “When was the last time you talked to a real, honest to God customer and asked them to buy your product?” I think it works just as well for all industries B&B

  • avatar

    my question

    “over the last 20 years as other companies have been taking your market share has anyone tried to see what they were doing different than you and tried to follow their lead? ”

    now how do you think gm and chrysler would answer this question .


  • avatar

    “How’s that estate in the Cayman Islands you’re building coming along?”

  • avatar

    My question:

    You’re on the dole, yet your business plan includes projects that will lose money. How do you justify that?

    Alternatively, this could be put as:

    You’re on the dole, yet your business plan includes projects that will lose money. What the hell is wrong with you?

    I figure the answer (I’m thinking specifically of the Volt, of course) would be along the lines of “strategic necessity,” and my followup question would be, “You aren’t in control of the key enabling technology, which is battery cells with advantageous robustness, longevity and capacity. At least two of your principal competitors see this [a Volt-like vehicle] as unnecessary and uneconomic at this time, so why doesn’t a business plan that simply aims for tactical advantage without incurring increased losses and negative cash flow suit you? Isn’t economic viability in the immediate future your absolute #1 goal, given the terms of the Federal loans? Don’t economically infeasible projects just increase your indebtedness to the public and risk of complete insolvency?”

    Hmmm… for “complete insolvency,” substitute, “at long last and finally, public recognition of your complete insolvency?”

  • avatar

    Did you ever think of making something other than cars – and putting it in your business plan?

    We have all of these vacant factories now which are nothing but stranded capital. We have whole communities which were/are economically dependent on these factories.

    You can’t tell me that there is nothing else they can make in these factories. I’m sure the reply is “nothing else economically competitive”. My reply, “Why not?” If the cost of labor is too high, bid the plants out and enter new contracts with an equity kicker to the employees.

    It seems like the “business plans” (and I use that term loosely) were stunning in their lack of creativity and vision. I’d feel a lot better subsidizing these folks if, instead of writing a plan that said “pay us to close more plants”, they said “pay us to build windmills or residential hydrogen fuel cells”.

    I bet if you asked the guys and gals in the plants if there were other things they could make, you’d get a variety of creative answers, and some of them would be economically feasible.

  • avatar

    I posted the pointer to this piece in the comments to the NPR article (highlighted in my original piece here). We can hope. Also made a tinyurl to point here:

  • avatar

    “I have it on good authority from DHS that all of you will be exiled to the nation of Zambia. You have one chance to explain why you should be allowed to stay. Go!”

  • avatar

    How can I screw up for decades and keep my high-paying job?

  • avatar

    Conslaw: Did you ever think of making something other than cars – and putting it in your business plan?

    Honda already makes motorcycles, lawn mowers, tractors, etc. Would you buy a Buick lawn mower over a Honda?

  • avatar

    Picard234 wrote

    Honda already makes motorcycles, lawn mowers, tractors, etc. Would you buy a Buick lawn mower over a Honda?

    Actually, I am in the market for a lawnmower. I looked at Consumer Reports. A Honda self-propelled mower is highly rated at $800.00. There is a Toro which is the next highest rated at 400.00. I would consider a Buick mower if it offered superior value for the money.

    Honda kind of proves my point. Honda does make other things. They make mowers, generators. They are experimenting with robots and business jets. They are also experimenting with residential fuel cells. If they can get the cost down, it could be a huge market.

    Yamaha makes motorcycles, but it is the largest musical instrument maker in the world.

  • avatar

    I had to post this about the Dodge Caravan that I was once upon a time going to buy. The MSM will never tell us the truth about what they see and experience with their own eyes:

    Inside the cabin, the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan left us unimpressed, however. Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham put his disappointment into words: “This van feels like it was designed and assembled by apes. Apes that were pounded mercilessly by bean counters to get more cost out of the poor resulting van’s interior. Apes that have never been in a Honda Odyssey. Apes that have no respect for their customers. Apes that have no problem sleeping at night after selling people a plastic-y, poorly assembled crapmobile for the ridiculous sum of $40,200. Instead the Grand Caravan feels like Dodge just doesn’t care. Like the company has given up.”

  • avatar

    Bunch of good questions above.

    Would like to see “truth serum” administered prior to their responses. Then things would really get interesting.

  • avatar

    The problem is it doesn’t really matter what you ask, you won’t really learn much.


  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    1. The PTFOA noted Chrysler’s inferior build quality in the report, something that a lot of customers have known over the years. Is Chrysler listening, yet?

    2. None of Chrysler’s products appear to be selling well now. There is not much in the pipeline. Chrysler/Fiats won’t hit the market until 2011 at best. How does Chrysler plan to stay alive until then, other than asking for bailouts?

    3. Have the Big 3 approached NHTSA, EPA and DOT with a proposal for establishing some sort of fast-moving plan to make it easier to sell European or Asian cars that meet comparable safety standards? Could a plan like this reduce the amount of time to bring Chrysler-saving Fiats, Ford-helping Fiestas, or GM-saving Opel-based cars to market?

    4. Will Chrysler’s Fiats be made in US factories, rather than Canada or Mexico?

    5. Has any sort of market research been conducted that really shows that Chrysler-made Fiats could actually compete against us-made Hondas, Toyotas, etc?

    6. Is there a Plan C for GM if they can’t find buyers for Hummer, Saturn, etc?

    7. So what’s the total cost of all the bailout money you’ve received in the last nine months? How does that compare when divided by the number of employees your company has on the payroll?

    8. At any point, have any of your executives through the purchasing and ownership processes like your customers do, without telling the dealer?

    9. Have any executives gone to Hertz, Avis, Dollar or any one of the other rental agencies and rented a product, either yours or a competitor’s? Wouldn’t this expose managers to what your customers really see?

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    What new processes exist in your company that have been emulated by your competitors in the last five years?

  • avatar

    The whole MSM is a joke. Not only they have no command of the history of something but they don’t really care about the history. That is something we need to accept. There are people who claim to know something when they mostly know so much that aren’t so.

    When you ask (press) them about their sources, they are clueless or they disregard the idea of very question. They do not largely care about the sources. They only care about the outcome. Therefore, whatever they can do to push for their desire outcome, the better. They also claim that they are all well intended. Thus, they evaluate the “good” by the intentions and mostly intentions only. The bad results almost never affect them.

    Recently, I wrote a comment here on TTAC. The responder used phrases like “interests of capital”, “internalize these profits”, or “greater goods.” The responder had very little idea of these phrases and probably never thought out these phrases.
    If a person declares that, “The paper is bad.” I expect that person to explain why it is bad. He should explain what he is comparing that paper against and able to define the “good” and the “bad” paper. He also needs to explain about the properties of the paper. However, it is very unlikely that the person will able to do so. The person will disregard all the reference points in order to have his argument to be the “winner.”

    I realize that some of these topics can be contentious due to dogmatic nature of these topics. However, in general, we who hold opinions should keep in mind that there is the truth. 1 + 1 will always be 2. It will never be 3. If it ever were to be 3, then the whole thing is wrong, not just 1 + 1 but everything that’s after 1 + 1. The 1+1=3 can’t keep itself only for so long because 1+1=3 will eventually be found out and it will not be accepted. Such discernment or discrimination can take some time. The relativist don’t care about the time. They want to rush everything through. They don’t care about the systematic processes. Before we can blink, they have accomplished their objectives and will accomplish their objectives. Just look at it. If you are the viewer of the show 24, remember what Jack Bauer said. The opponents do not care about how they accomplish their objectives. They don’t follow the rules. They almost never do. They will say that the rules are antiquated. If the rules are inconvenient, they will try to bend and shape rules by judge-shopping in order to overrule the inconvenient rules.

    1+1=2 is an axiom. It’s not matter of whether we like the result, but rather an acceptance that there are certain things that will be constant. These constants are everywhere. The constants are the reference points, which MSM and populists want to disregard in order to bring about their desire results through their micro and myopic views.

    Another problem is that they think they are the “Best and Brightest.” They also think that their oppositions are the “Worst and the Dumbest.” This has associative property where it goes both ways. As such, those who have principled and libertarian (classical liberal) views should not apology for their views and should take them on squarely. We have responsibility to our fellow citizens to take them on.

    Good is only good if the good can be compared to bad? The term “good” cannot be used without something that it can be compared against. If the supposedly good cannot be compared and contrasted, then it is either a nothing or something less than a nothing. This is also axiom.

    For example: A = +1;

    If ( A – 1 >= 0 ) is false then A isn’t +1. It is only when A is the +1, the result can be the greater than or equal to 0. Otherwise, A has false value assigned to it or something is very wrong with the A = +1 assignment. Some people may say, it isn’t so cut and dry or black and white? If that is so, is there any point where it is okay to beat a woman for being a woman? Will there be a point where it is okay to have someone as a slave who is denied of self-determination. Is there any point where we honor cowards or aspired to be cowards? These values are very constant and black and white value to everyone. Nobody hardly writes book where the book glorifies the evil unless the author had an evil intent. But, that is also another truth in life. Some people are just bad and we aren’t going to convince them otherwise. It is what it is. 1 = 1. 1 != 2. We don’t glorify evil behaviors unless you are in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and the countries like these.

    Another argument can be made where “doesn’t that person have right to hold opinions?” Sure they do. But they do not have right to use the force of the government to deny or grant unalienable rights. After all, this is the USA not Cuba. The person can think 1+1=3 all day. But those who know that 1+1 isn’t 3, we need to respond to them immediately and swiftly. Look at the kids who are raised from the parent who let the kids think or do whatever the kids want. The act isn’t to bring about creativity but it is an act of negligence.

  • avatar

    How close does a fly get to the ceiling before it flips over to land?

    The question would at least get a useful response.

  • avatar

    Are you still going to sell full size body on frame SUVs? How about small pickups?
    Rod Panhard- I’d say yes for question 1. the interiors of the RAM, Journey and Grand Caravan look pretty nice to me.

  • avatar

    “Don’t you find it ironic that we (the MSM) take money from you to advertise for you, yet constantly help promote the stereotype that all import brands are superior?”

  • avatar

    The problem is it doesn’t really matter what you ask, you won’t really learn much

    That’s a good point. There’s no question you can ask that wouldn’t result in prevarication and nonspeak. Sad, really, the state of statesmanship.

    The only time I heard a straight answer out of someone in this position was when, at a high-school Q&A, someone asked then leader of the opposition Jean Chretien if he planned to cut the GST. His answer was, unequivocably, “The tax is gone”. Didn’t do it when won in the subsequent election, but the candidness was enough to shock me into not asking my question, which was “Are you actually going to answer any questions today?”

    In this case, I’d love to ask “Exactly how could you f_ck up for twenty five straight years, bleeding money and marketshare, and not consider changing course.”

    Or maybe more succinctly “What were you smoking?”

  • avatar

    I’d like to know if the execs actually go to dealer showrooms to experience what their customers do.

    I’d love to see ol’ Fritz go to some random Chevy dealership and either be bombarded by vulture salespeople, or ignored while he waits to “test drive” an Equinox or something. Then, upon getting into the vehicle, I’d love to see the look on his face when he sees the interior that his customers see, rather than the dressed up version the execs see before the penny pinchers get ahold of it.

    A customer’s dealer experience can help make a decision for a buyer, and if your dealership experience sucks, and the first impression your cars give is just as bad, you’re not going to sell a car. GM’s cars are getting better, can they say the same about the dealerships?

  • avatar

    After the sodium penthathol (thanks Jack) you gotta lay on them “Do you actually think you can turn this around or are you just spending everyday planning on how big your golden parachute is going to be?”

  • avatar

    They [Honda] are experimenting with robots and business jets.

    Well beyond experimenting, the production tooling for the HondaJet (Google it) is arriving at the assembly plant as you read this.

  • avatar

    Let me try a different approach.

    Let’s say you have the heads of each major US carmaker in a panel and they all had to answer my question (I only need one) with 100% truth and then had to do as I say.

    Chairmen of GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota:

    From 1930 – 1960, GM, Ford and Chrysler could sell a car for whatever they wanted in the largest market. The union needed something? The management needed something? No problem.. Just raise the price of the car $5 or $50… At some point Honda and Toyota got some paper and pencil and figured out that they could make better cars at a much lower cost and sell them for the same price as GM, Ford, Chrysler. Presto! BIG margins!

    Then Honda and Toyota did the unthinkable. They DID NOT get greedy and go for the jugular. They just kept making HUGE margins. To “fix” this you all invested in automation for every facet of your business. Computer systems, robots, you name it.
    Now you’re in a massive pickle.. Too much capacity.. Too many car companies. Nowhere near enough demand.

    In front of you is a piece of paper. You will write only a single # on that paper.

    What is the maximum number of vehicles that all of your plants running full out can make in a year? (3 shifts.. 24 hours x 365 days a year)

    Thank you gentlemen. I’ve added up these numbers and together you can build 25 Million units. The market demand is currently south of 10 Million units and dropping.

    So we have a 15M unit problem. Since none of you can survive splitting < 10M units, the weakest are done.

    GM, Chrysler, goodbye. Please leave the room.

    Okay.. Toyota, Ford and Honda it’s been a good run.. I hope you make it to past this round… I just eliminated 10M units of a 15M unit problem.

    Now I have a 5M unit problem. If you can get by on the scraps of 5-10M annual sales in North America, then things are good.

    See you in 3 months for the same conversation.

  • avatar

    After WW2 Alfa Romeo used its remaining manufacturing capabilities to make kitchen stoves (i.e. home appliances) to start some sort of production up until they could raise enough capital to begin building cars again. They recognized the public’s need for stoves outweighed its need for fine sporting automobiles at that time.

  • avatar

    What happens if demand goes above 16M units?
    How about above 20M?
    I think the 10M number will last for 2 years and then go up for another 10-20 years.

  • avatar


    If demand goes up that is a good thing.. New plants can be built.. old ones can reopen.

    Why does a car today get roughly the same mileage as 10 – 15 years ago?

    The domestics don’t have the money to develop the technology for 50MPG. The foreign companies do have the money but only need to match the domestics. Creating an Accord that got 60MPG would kill the domestics and in turn kill Honda’s profit margins.

  • avatar

    I think the MSM has been in the tank for Japanese and European cars for years. (Can’t say I blame them). I would ask the GM, Ford or Chrysler executive this question? Why do you allow your finance (or former finance companies) to savage dealers that are the only game in town and have no other competition? Why do you demand that dealers build these huge Taj Majal-type facilities only to see them go belly up due to the actions of the finance company or the poor economy? Do you feel you have any obligation to your customers after a long-time local dealer has closed, other than, find a new one on-line and its been nice knowing you? What about rural areas? Are rural areas now not entitled to any new car dealers, after having been served by one of more since World War II? When GM,Ford, or Chrysler executives honestly answer these questions, I’ll resume buying from them. But, I won’t hold my breath. So off to Toyota I go.

  • avatar

    I speak this from direct experience…

    What are you doing to cut layers of management and speeding up decision making?

    How are you going to start evaluating personnel to weed out the career professionals and support the people with passion about cars.

    When are you going to stop the idiotic process of hiring based on GPA alone?

    Side notes, the SRT group at Chrysler is amazing how much they accomplish with few people. I worked on a project at a different OEM that had the smallest team of any group I had worked with, but it was the best and brightest. We literally created a car with 10% the usual number of people. Most of the people on that project made at least two promotions higher in just a couple of years. It proved to me that having great people passionate about their jobs can work amazing things.

  • avatar

    Morea: Where do you think Frigidaire and Philco came from? GM and Ford. All of the big three had many holdings far and wide that have been frittered away over the years.

    The problem with all of these questions is that the heads of all these companies aren’t the morons that they seem to portray. They do have agendas but most would have the same responses to the questions that you do, it’s just impossible to say anything like that in public. In GM’s case it’s like they decided the grit their teeth and bear it out, hoping to get to the other side in some shape or form.

    Hasn’t worked.

  • avatar

    Dimwit : Where do you think Frigidaire and Philco came from?

    Well according to wikipedia GM simply bought Frigidaire, they didn’t start it themselves nor use it as a means to keep idle factories busy during a time of crisis.

    Likewise, Philco was already half a century old when Ford bought it in 1961. Ford sold the radio part in 1974 and the aerospace part in 1981.

    My point with Alfa was to suggest thinking outside the box for the Detroit three. In this time of crisis what can they manufacture other than autos to keep revenue coming in?

  • avatar
    George B

    What vehicles have you driven lately?

    I want to see leaders in the auto industry that actually like cars and driving. I’ll defer to Ford insiders, but former Ford CEO Don Petersen strikes me as the type of auto industry leader that actually cared about the cars his company makes.
    …There was only one kind of car headquarters wanted to hear about: A Car Just Like Last Year’s.

    After examining some sketches, Petersen looked up at the designers and asked, “Are you proud of these?’ There was a pause. In big corporations people are handsomely paid not to say what they think.

    “No. I’m embarrassed by them,’ Jack Telnack, Ford’s chief of design, answered…

  • avatar

    When is the “personal coupe” coming back?

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Hey Davey49, I’d say yes for question 1. the interiors of the RAM, Journey and Grand Caravan look pretty nice to me.

    Unfortunately, to stay competitive, all their interiors have to look more than pretty nice, and the entire product range has to look more than pretty nice.

    Three Chrysler products were recently in my neighbor’s driveway as rentals. They were horrible, and not even up to the “standard” set by a 1993 Mazda parked less than 100 feet away.

  • avatar

    Thanx Stewart…now I know what a “confused medley” is.

    Questions that come to mind..

    to GM:

    1)Are you all really betting the future of North American GM on the “Volt”…an untried, unproven concept that by your own admission will sell poorly at minimal profit? Any other back-up plans?

    2)Was the fiasco that the “mid-80s GM diesel cars” were a learning experience? A brilliant calculated move to ensure that light and medium diesel engines would have minimal impact in American vehicles?

    to EPA, CARB, ASTM:

    Now that ultra-low sulpher diesel has been accomplished, how is it that minimum cetane standards remain at a miserable “maybe 40”, ensuring a future of rough-running, hard-to-comply engines that will no doubt have more than their share of emission warranty and driveability problems?

  • avatar

    “Unfortunately, to stay competitive, all their interiors have to look more than pretty nice, and the entire product range has to look more than pretty nice.”

    I say the money is better spent elsewhere. The fuzz/rubber sprayed plastic that everyone loves is also harder to keep clean. Plus I’d rather have the money spent on improving reliability, safety, fuel economy and keeping jobs in the US.
    I wonder what the reduction in per unit profit is on the no better selling new Malibu is as opposed to the old version.

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