Yesterday evening, while yours truly was in seedy Tokyo bars, rubbing shoulders and more with paid informants, word reached us that Opel’s new sales chief Alfred Rieck allegedly threw-in the towel and left Opel in disgust, after only seven months of valiantly trying to move the damaged goods called Opel cars. After a few phone calls to Germany this morning, a different story emerged. Siehe unten.
“Rieck did not go,” said one of Rieck’s former colleagues at Volkswagen, “er wurde gegangen.” He has been gone, as the saying goes in Germany’s executive speak. Or as Automobilwoche [sub] puts it bluntly: “Rieck was fired.” Opel’s leaky supervisory board (the leaks usually spring on the union side) floated the story that Rieck had not been up to the difficult, not to say impossible task of turning around sales and market share at Opel. Which, after only seven months on the job, is a bit much to ask anyway.
Before Rieck foolishly embarked on the mission impossible at Opel, he had done quite well. As head of Skoda in Germany, he helped positioning the brand as the smart shopper’s choice. Sent to China, he successfully established the Czech brand in a market awash with brands. Before, the former Marketing Chief of Volkswagen had advanced to Senior Leader in charge of sales and marketing of luxury Volkswagen cars, a task that is nearly as challenging as selling Opels. If you can sell Phaetons, selling Adams should be a cinch. Rieck had been hired by former Opel chief Stracke when he was still in charge. Girsky and Sedran reportedly never warmed up to Rieck. As a man who knew what he was doing, Rieck was in the way at Opel.
The scuttlebutt from Germany also says that fired Opel sales chief Rieck and designated Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann shared the same floor, but few opinions while both were at Volkswagen in China. It is said that Girksy and Sedran could dispose of Rieck while saying that they want to clean house for Neumann. In German management speak, the genre played on the rickety stages of Rüsselsheim is called “Meucheldrama,” a low budget killer epic. Some call it a “Schmierenkommödie” – fringe theater.
In a play awash in fake blood and real losses, Sedran is a paid extra, a puppet played by Girksy and the people who pull Girsky’s strings. Stand-in CEO Sedran is of the species homo auxiliatus, he is a management consultant. Sedran worked for the Munich office of Alix Partners, the same consultancy that helped Girsky engineer the federally-managed bankruptcy of General Motors, and the subsequent take-over by an unholy alliance between the UAW and an Obama administration that owes its existence to the unions. Don’t forget: Girsky himself was a (very generously) paid UAW operative, who came to GM’s board as a representative of the union’s VEBA trust.
According to many reports, it was Girsky who opposed the sale of Opel to Magna and Russian interests, a deal that was to be lubricated with a generous helping of German tax money while GM had none.
Assuming that Girsky had the backing of UAW and Washington, the other boardsitters nodded as usual. Alix Partners had developed an optimistic turn-around concept for Opel in 2008/2009, and the document became the ammunition that helped Girsky shoot down the sale of Opel at the last minute. Germany’s government, from stupidly snubbed Frau Merkel on down, turned into perennial enemies of Opel in a time when Opel could not afford more enemies. Sedran and his Alix Partners employers were relieved. Opel going to Magna and Russia bankers would have meant an assured end of Alix Partners work for Opel. Opel is a management consultant’s dream, as long as the corpse is kept breathing, it will never stop needing restructuring advice. A sold Opel most likely would have caused terminal indigestion at Magna and the Russians, but hey, their problem. Unsold, Opel keeps draining the blood out of GM.
Of course, Opel’s turn-around concept was a dud, or a “Blindgänger” as they call it over there. Unexploded ordnance devices have the nasty characteristics of exploding at inopportune moments over many years, and it is the momentously failed Girsky/Sedran/Alix Partners turnaround of Opel that weighs down on GM’s bottom line, cash flow and stock valuation. Instead of turning around, Opel turned deeper in the morass of a collapsing European car market, to which Opel was and is shackled by its Detroit rulers. The sale to Magna would have been GM’s peace with honor, just like Ford elegantly and honorably untangled itself from the strangulation by Volvo, JLR, et al. Instead , Girsky, ammunitioned by Alix Partners and Girsky’s confidante Sedran, walked GM deeper and deeper into the German quagmire, making Rüsselsheim GM’s Vietnam.
It was no surprise to see Girsky dispatched to German shores, first as Chairman of Opel’s supervisory board, then as stand-in CEO, who drafted his water boy Sedran as interim-CEO after someone told him that according to German company law, it is less than smart to be both supervisory board chairman and supervised CEO in personal union. I can well imagine that RenCen executives, sick and tired and bruised from kicking themselves daily for having listened to Girsky’s stupid advice of holding on to terminally ill Opel, told Girsky: “You always knew how to whip those German clowns in shape. Go over there and do it.” Crowned as Emperor of GM’s Europe, Girsky was dispatched on a suicide mission. RenCen got rid of know-it-all Girsky, and had someone to blame. Brilliant.
In the German upper management vernacular, which Girsky hopefully is learning, such an act is called “wegloben”, literally “to praise away”, usually understood as “to kick upstairs” or as “transfer to Siberia” on a one-way ticket.
While in Germany, Girsky had nothing better to do than find the French patient as an ally: PSA, the company that managed to leverage the fact that it is Europe’s second largest automaker into debilitating losses. No wonder GM and PSA get along. We shall keep them as material for the next theater season. Holding a B.S. in Mathematics form UCLA, Girsky is convinced that minus times minus equals plus. (Just don’t add them, please.)
Consultant Sedran’s interimistic CEO gig likewise raised eyebrows, this time in the management consultant community. Changing sides, switching from consultant to manager is not the jump in one’s career as which it is often sold. In the consultancy business, your peers look down on you when you go to the Dark Side. It is usually the under-performing consultants that are disposed into the landfill of executives “at the client.” Once you have landed there, you are supposed to provide your former colleagues (who usually know interesting details of your prior life) with juicy contracts, while the grey beards at the company will not stop trying to trip the intruder, often right into their open knives. The act of giving juicy contracts to your old cronies at the management consultancy often serves as a handy trip-wire. Belatedly, you realize that the consultant’s job of recommending change is much easier – and often much better paid – than the manager’s nasty job of implementing change. Especially in the morass called Opel.
“Man muss schon ein grosses Arschloch sein,” to take a leading position at Opel these days, says my German informant with Saturday-morning bluntness. His assessment of the attraction of Opel jobs, and what assembly of assorted asstute assets they manage to draw, shall remain untranslated. All I can say is that in Germany, the announcement that one signs up as an executive at Opel usually elicits an “was hast du den angestellt?” What did you do to deserve such punishment.
PS: Rieck’s job has been filled, as it is the custom at Opel, on an interim basis. Vauxhall brand chief Duncan Aldred reports as interim sales chief of Opel to interim CEO Sedran until Neumann takes over in March. Girsky praised Duncan for having turned Vauxhall into “the fastest growing brand for retail customers in the United Kingdom.” European auto execs find this statement humorous. Due to UK tax regulations, your first new car in the island nation, and hopefully many more, is a company car as part of your salary package. More than half of the UK’s new car sales are “fleet” sales. According to data released by the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), Vauxhall’s share of the UK market dropped to 11.36 percent in 2012, down from 12.09 percent in 2011. It’s all relative: In Germany, Opel’s market share dropped from 8 percent in 2011 to 6.9 percent in 2012, with Rieck on the job during six months of that year. Compared to that, Aldred’s loss looks like a gain. At least in the world of Opel.