Category: GM Death Watch

By on April 28, 2009

This is not what I expected. Sure, I got the bankruptcy bit right. Big deal. Better analysts than me were making that call back when I was playing with Corgi toys (another car company destined for the scrap heap). But I never thought Uncle Sam would nationalize GM. Ace commentator PCH101 will tell you it’s all in good fun: a temporary government intervention that gives taxpayers a shot at recovering some of the tens of billions [we shouldn’t have] spent keeping the zombie automaker alive. Or at least postpones GM’s inevitable dissolution for a less financially fraught finale. But I reckon politics will rear its ugly head, create a distortion field around GM’s car making business and kill any hope of GM surviving in any way, shape or form. The acid test: the Chevy Volt.

Clearly, the Volt is a born loser. For one thing, it’s too late. If GM’s electric/gas plug-in hybrid had appeared ten years ago, before the Toyota Prius created and satiated the market for econo-hybrids, the Volt might have had a chance. Second, it’s born under a bad sign: bankruptcy. Third, it’s arriving (if it ever arrives) at the wrong time. With the economy in the doldrums, gas prices in Davy Jones’ locker and new car prices about to tank (thanks to GM’s aforementioned C11), a relatively cramped $30K high mileage sedan boasting untested technology that requires consumer behavior modification (i.e., plugging it in) is, well, doomed. Which reminds me: the Volt doesn’t work.

The undaunted cheerleaders over at Autoblog (AB) posted a behind-the-wheel test of GM’s “plug-in savior.” Click on the video and you learn that the EV boosters were treated to an “80 percent plus representation of what [the Volt buyer’s] electric vehicle driving experience will be in the Chevy Volt.” The test—such as it wasn’t— completely missed the point. It’s not the “experience” that counts. It’s the utility. Can the Chevrolet Volt drive a full 40 miles on battery power only? Uphill? Upwind? In an arctic chill? In the desert heat? How long does it take to recharge? And how does it drive on gas power AFTER the battery discharges? GM’s Volt man proudly proclaims The General’s about to build 75 Volt prototypes. Big friggin’ deal. Show us the practicality. Now.

Better yet, don’t. There is no business case for this car. In fact, the Volt is a near-perfect representation of the kind of half-baked, reality-divorced, over-optimistic product development that drove the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker into Uncle Sam’s loving embrace. It’s a Hail Mary from a company that doesn’t have a prayer of dislodging the Toyota Prius from its stranglehold on environmentally conscious, financially frugal car drivers. Never mind the Volt’s plug-in aspect. ToMoCo is already working on a plug-in Prius. If the Volt proves that power cords are pistonhead paradise, the Prius will have one. AND it will work.

Did I mention the Honda Insight? By the time the Chevy Volt gets around to getting around (for real), the Insight will have mopped-up the few thousand American consumers who want a Prius, but prefer someone else’s version. Lest we forget, GM has been producing knock-offs that singularly fail to knock the competition off their sales perch for the last thirty years or more. Be they economy, muscle or luxury cars. Truth be told, in the last two decades (at least), GM’s only consistently competitive, consistently profitable vehicles have been trucks and SUVs. Uh-oh . . .

Common sense says whatever’s left of GM after bankruptcy needs to make as much money as possible to pay us back. To stop sucking-up billions of our hard-earned tax dollars to provide work for union workers, management idiots and federal bureaucrats. The American automaker openly, brazenly admits that they’re not going to make money on the Volt for a long time. [See video above.] An indeterminate amount of time, in fact. Meanwhile, the Volt will require further billions to [maybe] make its technology work. And then tens of millions more to market the damn thing.

So kill it.

If the goal is to return to profitability, post-C11 “good” GM should focus on building the most profitable vehicles left in their arsenal. Then they should pick a couple of vehicles that have the most potential to be profitable and figure out how to make them profitable. There’s no way that niche products can pass this stress test. CTS Sports Wagon? Dead. Chevrolet Volt. Gone.

Of course, a return to profitability is no longer GM’s goal. Since when does the US government care about profitability? Have you looked at the federal deficit lately? When President Obama outlined his reasons for rescuing Detroit, it was all about green jobs and a healthy planet. Not profits or ROI. Which means the Volt will not die. But GM will.

By on April 27, 2009

Time’s up! GM has announced that 2010 will be Pontiac’s final year. No surprise to anyone who’s been reading the writing on the wall. But nevertheless a sign that those in charge of GM’s destiny are more interested in appearing to be doing something than in actually addressing the core weaknesses of the car manufacturer. Why is so much attention focused on GM’s brands? Because, like the CEO, they’re what outsiders can see and at least superficially understand. The real problems are both less visible and less easily comprehensible.

As some within GM have long recognized, a wide array of brands could be a major competitive advantage. When you have multiple brands to work with rather than just one or two, each brand can be tightly focused, and thus be more meaningful than a brand that must be all things to all people. GM didn’t prosper because it failed to provide each brand with distinctive, desirable cars. Instead, every brand attempted to be all things to all people. Why? Partly because distinctive products cost more to develop than badges alone, but also because each brand had its own dealers, and each dealer wanted one of everything.

Dealers’ desire was not irrational. Demand for different sorts of cars varies with gas prices, the economy, and fluctuating consumer tastes. Any dealer that wanted steady sales—a key goal for any business—wanted a diverse set of products to sell. This longstanding problem was finally addressed a few years ago, when Buick, Pontiac, and GMC were combined into a single channel. This should have freed up Buick and Pontiac to focus on specific groups of car buyers with finely tuned products.

Pontiac’s focus was to be enthusiasts—for real this time. Bob Lutz announced that every future Pontiac would be a rear-wheel-drive performance-oriented car. Three models, each with two or three body styles, would have been sufficient: the Solstice coupe and roadster, the large G8 sedan and (planned but canceled) wagon, and a smaller Alpha-based coupe, sedan, and (possibly) hatch. No other mainstream brand offers a compact rear-wheel drive sedan, or focuses so tightly on enthusiasts. An Alpha-based Pontiac could have been a big winner. Hopefully we’ll still see this car from Chevrolet. But it would have been better from a brand focused entirely on driver’s cars.

So, maybe GM had finally figured out how to realize Pontiac’s potential, only to have gas prices shoot up and then have the bottom fall out of the market. GM being GM, plans for performance-oriented cars were tabled not long after gas prices spiked. Unlike the strongest auto companies, GM has long had a habit of constantly second-guessing its plans and over-reacting to car market fluctuations. Of course, this time around GM had no choice: it’s out of cash. It might have finally muddled through to a solution, but too late.

And so Pontiac will die next year. Saturn, Hummer, and Saab will be gone even sooner. This doesn’t change one key fact: killing brands does not address GM’s historical inability to consistently create distinctive, desirable cars.

Limited resources have often been blamed for this inability. Supposedly GM split its product development and marketing funds too many ways. But if each product was viable, it should have been possible to gather the necessary funds for it, at least before the recent collapse. Funds were limited because of limited faith, both inside and outside GM, that proposed products would be profitable.

The root problem: senior executives at the top of the corporation continue to be involved in more product decisions than they can possibly make well. These senior executives cannot understand each product and market the way an empowered, dedicated product team could. And they lack the time to personally make all of the decisions that need to be made.

The visible consequences: a few great cars that received the undivided attention and logjam-breaking influence of senior executives, and a larger number of not-so-great ones that did not receive this attention and influence.

Two possible solutions: reduce product offerings to a number that senior management can personally attend to, or transfer decision-making authority for these products to multiple units lower in the organization. GM made feints at the latter strategy, most notably with the mid-nineties formation of cross-functional vehicle teams led by Vehicle Line Executives. But this decentralization was never complete, and with each crisis the organization backslid to its old ways.

Even with GM on the brink of bankruptcy, there’s still no sign that substantial changes are being made to the GM organization. They’ve replaced the CEO and they’re reducing the number of brands. This treats the symptoms rather than the disease. How this course of action generally turns out: the surgeon (wielding a cleaver in this case) cuts and cuts and cuts until the patient dies.

By on April 27, 2009

Excitement is an ephemeral phenomenon. As was Pontiac. It had its glorious day in the sunshine of the exciting sixties. Pontiac was like the polite, quiet middle child who ran away to California in the early sixties, became a huge star, crashed in 1970, and played the county fair nostalgia circuit ever since. In between repeated bouts in rehab. And now we’re here to pay our last respects.

Not only was Pontiac the “quiet” child in the GM household, it was also the unplanned “accidental” child. Created in 1926 as a minor lower priced “companion” to Oakland, one of GM’s original five car companies, Pontiac survived its mother’s death in the Depression. To save costs, GM’s President Alfred Sloan had Pontiac share a lengthened Chevrolet body and chassis as well as other major components. It became a tarted-up Chevy, and with Pontiac’s first straight-eight engine in 1933, a more powerful one. Thus badge-engineering was born.

In Sloan’s “a car for every pocketbook” dictum, Pontiac became the (realistic) aspiration for the Chevy driver of the thirties. Pontiac’s prices slotted in exactly between the most expensive Chevy range and the cheapest Oldsmobile.

But Sloan’s religiously hierarchical structure collapsed at the beginning of the Depression. And by the fifties, the divisions were all over each other. It was like a new twist to a professional wrestling tag team match: The GM Mid-Price Thee Stooges. And although the GM team made sure to make it look like they were also fighting with each other, it didn’t really matter, as long as the real competition was flattened. The competition’s contestants like Edsel and DeSoto were tossed out of the ring, permanently. Mercury, Dodge and Chrysler were left bloody. And it wasn’t ketchup either.

But Pontiac was the laggard of the GM team until 1959. That’s when it reinvented itself, started working out in earnest, grew a “wide track,” and let its (now dyed blonde) hair grow long. And overnight, it became the Star(Chief).

Instantly, Pontiac jumped to fourth place in US sales. The dreamy 1960 “Wide Track Pontiac” ads as rendered by Fitzpatrick and Kaufman are icons of the time when Americans were ready to fully embrace image, youthfulness, style, and most of all, excitement. Pontiac’s decade had arrived.

Unarguably the best styled cars of the sixties, Pontiac jumped to third place in 1962 and held that spot though the decade. It was a crushing blow to Chrysler’s Plymouth division, which had claimed that perch since the late twenties. And in doing so, Pontiac sucked Chevy right into the GM tag team spectacle. And before long, even Caddy would be in the ring too, fighting for the working-man’s attention (and suspension of disbelief).

But all during the sixties, Pontiac had the moves to keep the eyes on it. The first was the 1963 Grand Prix coupe. It had the exclusiveness and formal elegance of the Buick Riviera coupe, at about three-fourths the price.

But Pontiac really wowed the crowds with its 1964 GTO. Now here was something that hadn’t been seen before. Drop-kick the big 389 into the light, mid-size Tempest, along with suspension, tire, appearance and interior upgrades, and the affordable American enthusiast car reached its zenith. In this pre-BMW era of fossilized British roadsters, the GTO overwhelmingly had the best overall performance/dollar equation. Pontiac was BMW before BMW was cool (or available).

But like for so many stars of the sixties, the seventies were not kind to Pontiac. Its flabby beltline was clearly showing. What remaining life forces it could muster were all concentrated on one remaining move, the Trans Am. And even that became a bit of a joke after one too many times. Pontiac’s star had passed, and it tumbled out of the coveted number three spot.

Now its moves were reduced to pathetic little imitations of Chevrolet: Phoenix, Astre, Sunbird, J-2000, T-1000, etc. Having lost its mojo, Pontiac also began endless self-conscious attempts to capture the BMW cachet, like with the original 1973 Grand Am.

Oddly enough, Pontiac’s last-ditch BMW-caricatures enjoyed a brief revival of interest during the mid-eighties. But the crowd that was paying (not very much) was not exactly a highly coveted demographic. As in this uncharitable description of the stereotypical driver of a (red) Grand Am: “a nail manicurist who lives in a trailer with an unemployed (former wrestler?) boyfriend”. Pontiac had become the Wal-Mart BMW. Be careful what you wish for.

Despite a few desperate last-ditch twitches induced by steroids smuggled in from Australia, Pontiac was tossed out of the ring for good. And the once-invincible GM tag team is desperately looking for signs of life among its few bloodied remaining members.

By on April 23, 2009

As GM’s journey to bankruptcy nears its conclusion, the punditocracy is busy contemplating the company’s afterlife. The current line of thinking: the feds will cleave General Motors in two. Bad GM gets Buick, GMC, HUMMER, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn. Good GM “buys” Chevrolet and Cadillac. It emerges from Chapter 11 unencumbered by outdated production facilities, warring management, befuddled marketing, over-priced labor, restrictive union work rules, astronomical pensions and onerous health care obligations. Chevillac rises from the ashes to steal share from both mainstream and luxury brands, repay its debts and thumb its nose at Bailout Nation’s critics. But here’s the thing: good GM is “saving” the wrong brands.

“What’s a Chevrolet?” branding guru Al Reis asks, rhetorically. “It’s a small or large cheap or expensive car, truck, SUV or sports car.” Reis has been sounding the alarm on Chevy’s branding for over twenty years, claiming the company lacks the focus it needs to survive in a market place with over 40 competitors.

So how could the liberated Chevrolet rebrand itself for success? “Get rid of the trucks,” Big Al suggests. “Take Chevy back to its roots. Make it what it was before Saturn arrived: an entry level car brand.”

Yes, well, what would distinguish this new Chevy from its competitors? Toyota owns reliability. Hyundai owns price. Nissan owns value. BMW owns driving pleasure. So. . . what? “It should be an American brand,” Reis says. Even if the cars are made somewhere else like, say, South Korea? “These days consumers don’t care where their products come from. Ralph Lauren’s clothing is made in China.”

When I push Reis for a unique selling point for Chevy, he hesitates. I can almost hear him shaking his head. “It’s too late to narrow its focus,” he says. “Other than appealing to patriotism, there isn’t anything left.”

I suppose Chevy could play the patriotic card, returning to the brand’s former “baseball, hotdogs and Chevrolet” appeal. It could even play off its taxpayer subsidy to assert itself as “America’s car company” (yes way). Chevrolet could offer comfortable, affordable and reliable American-styled sedans. Sort of like the groundbreaking Chrysler 300, only better.

Fine, but I doubt the US market would value four-wheeled flag waving enough to make Chevrolet profitable. Remember: Ralph Lauren’s WASPy brand ID convinces customers to pay a premium for his Chinese made apparel. If Chevy can’t charge a premium for these “all-American” products, it will have to compete on price with some of the world’s most efficient automakers. Why would the end result be any different than it is today?

Cadillac sits on the opposite end of the scale. As Lexus, Mercedes and Audi have proven, you don’t have to restrict yourself to one automotive genre to be a successful luxury automaker. But, like Chevy, like any car company, it’s all about the brand. The CTS may be as good as an equivalent BMW, but in this rarefied air, perception trumps product.

“If someone goes down to their golf club and says ‘I just bought a Cadillac,'” Reis says, “it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean you’ve made it.”

Restoring the Cadillac brand to the pinnacle of automotive desirability would require a multi-billion dollar investment in new products and an equally expensive marketing effort. At the same time, Cadillac would have to abandon its current willingness to maintain volumes with badge-engineered bling. Does Cadillac have the time/will/money to ditch/evolve their current lineup and make and promote the kind of world class cars that could reinvigorate the brand?

No.

Meanwhile, GM is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Buick, meh. But GMC is a strong brand that would gain strength the moment Chevy transfers all its SUVs and pickup trucks to the professional graders. Assuming the US economy recovers sometime before the next century, the pickup market will return. And after driving the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, I’m convinced there’s more room for the genre’s fuel efficiency, packaging, durability, safety, style, convenience, etc.

HUMMER may be the antithesis of President Obama’s vision of the American automobile’s future, but it’s an instantly recognizable brand. HUMMER’s underlying concept—SUV as survivalist’s enclave—still has resonance. Saturn has the touchy feely thing happening. It could be the home of green vehicles. American sports cars? Give Pontiac the Corvette, Solstice, Camaro and a performance brand is born. Saab could return to its roots an, uh, do whatever it is Saab used to do.

Alternatively, nothing. While resurrecting two or more of GM’s eight brands is doable, so is going to the moon. Judging from recent polls, Americans are more willing to fund lunar colonies than pour endless billions into GM.

That’s because they know that Uncle Sam isn’t “protecting ” or “investing” taxpayer’s money by subsidizing GM. They’re gambling on a loser. “GM has destroyed the equity of eight car brands,” Reis says. “You could almost say that’s what they do best.”

By on April 16, 2009

As TTAC’s Bailout Watch series heads for the initially improbable quingenta mark, it looks like the GM C11 naysayers are just about all nayed out. In his column, Detroit News Auto Editor Manny Lopez finally admits that a Chrysler/GM bankruptcy is . . . an option. Meanwhile, the self-styled AutoExtremist has thrown in the towel. In fact, Peter DeLorenzo now reckons GM is damaged beyond repair. A PR/marketing guy to the end, DeLorenzo has a solution: change GM’s name. “One hundred years of accomplishment and historic value to the American industrial fabric has been decimated in a matter of months. Once one of America’s corporate icons, GM has now been reduced to being a punchline for a running national joke, and this new car company will have to be unburdened of the GM name, pronto.” A matter of months? Clearly, DeLorenzo hasn’t been paying attention for the last decade or three.

GM isn’t the only one whose name is mud these days. Our neighbors to the north weren’t exactly thrilled when Chrysler told the Canadian Auto Workers to concede, the government to cough-up the bailout bucks or we’ll take our toys and go home. And now Ex-CEO Rick Wagoner stands accused of screwing GM’s Canadian subsidiary to secure taxpayer funding for his employer.

Bloomberg reports that “General Motors said it moved almost C$600 million ($495 million) from a Canadian unit to the U.S. [in March] as part of a deal with banks to strengthen U.S. operations and win government bailout money.”

Anyone remember when freshly-minted GM CEO Fritz Henderson announced the startling news that they didn’t have to draw down “extra” billions by the end of the month to keep the lights on? Apologists put it down to careful husbandry. Well, now we know the truth about GM’s sudden (if temporary) push away from the bailout buffet.

Of course, there’s the small matter of the bondholders left behind by GM’s run on the bank. And boy are THEY pissed.

Aurelius, Appaloosa and five other funds, who hold notes valued at 377 million pounds ($562 million), sued March 2 to have the money returned to the GM unit in Nova Scotia, which in 2003 issued the two series of notes.

The funds claim GM, the parent company, is either insolvent or on the brink of insolvency and knows it won’t be able to honor its obligation to the noteholders.

The parent company “has been or will be unjustly enriched at the expense” of Nova Scotia Finance and its creditors, the funds said.

See you in court? Hello? Chapter 11? Take a number and get in line, bud.

And join Pontiac and GMC dealers. Bloomberg also reports that “people familiar with the [federal] discussions” about GM’s train wreck say that the Pontiac and GMC may/will/might/could get the axe. This as GM’s “Savings Push Deepens.” It has to be asked: Fritz, do you like it like this?

GM’s spinmeisters responded to Bloomberg‘s Wild Ass Rumor with the kind of openness you’d expect from federal employees. “We are continuing to assess our global operations, brand portfolio and nameplates, and will take further actions to more aggressively restructure our business,” Renee Rashid-Merem, a GM spokeswoman, said yesterday. “It’s premature to comment on what those actions could entail.”

GM is talking muy macho for a company about to enter the Mother of All C11s. Ford, on the other hand, is talking softly and offering its dealers a big shtick.

The Detroit News curmudgeon Daniel Howes has finally broken radio silence to reveal that The Blue Oval Boyz have sent their dealers $1K in conquest cash with which to lure fleeing GM and Chrysler customers.

“Domestic intenders for Chrysler and GM have been defecting to Ford and Lincoln Mercury products in great numbers since the beginning of the year,” Amanda DeMouthe, marketing manager for Ford’s Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington regions, wrote dealers in an internal memo.

“And as media continues to speculate on the possibility of bankruptcy, those defections will surely continue. Please be sure your teams are aware of this new incentive. It is stackable with Customer Cash, Bonus Cash and 0% APR!”

You want domestic metal cheap? You know where to go. As Mr. Howes reminds us, it remains to be seen if FoMoCo can avoid the same fate awaiting General Motors at the hands of the feds. Meanwhile, everyone even remotely connected with Chrysler and GM is getting hammered, or is about to get hammered.

“Customers ask that question almost every day and they expect you to give the cars away because they say you’re in bankruptcy or soon will be,” New York Chrysler dealer Jonathan Grant tells our Mr. Howes. “This thing’s like a cloud that is hanging over us.”

By on April 14, 2009

The New York Times reports that hecklers are verbally assaulting GM’s booth babes at the New York Auto Show. Worse, the glamor girls are wearing last year’s dresses. Literally. This is not what you’d call death with dignity. This is GM on federal life support, drooling and soiling itself uncontrollably as it waits and waits and waits for someone somewhere to pull the damn plug already. As I’ve asserted in the past few episodes of this series, I no longer believe GM can be revived. The company is brain dead. No matter what cancerous parts of The General’s terminally ill body Uncle Sam’s surgeons separate from the corporate body, GM can’t function as an independent entity. Chevrolet and Cadillac? Building what? For whom? At what profit? Both of those brands are money losers losing market share right now. They may have volume but they ain’t got game. Of course, that’s not going to stop the feds from trying to revive GM. And boy, are they—I mean “we”—going to piss away a LOT of money.

In 37 days the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) will force GM to file for Chapter 11. A friendly bankruptcy judge will then split the artist formerly known as “the world’s largest automaker” into “good” GM and “bad” GM. “Good” meaning a new(ish) American carmaker, freed from a mountain of debt, pesky union contracts, health care obligations, pensions, unprofitable brands, outdated factories, commitments to Delphi, etc. “Bad” as in all that worthless NSFW piled into one place, where the creditors can squabble with each other over its worth until death do them part.

This the PTFOA will do in the name of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or, more accurately, finding a way to support GM with [your] federal tax money without completely alienating the 70 plus percent of Americans who are against supporting GM with [their] federal tax money.

Politically, the split makes sense—but only if the US government takes an equity position in the “new” GM. See? We didn’t throw billions of dollars worth of your hard-earned money down a rathole. We used it to help GM rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. It’s an investment. Uncle Sam gets to make a new cake and eat it too because GM’s current U.S. Treasury loans (call it $22.8 billion) are secured, backed by all of GM’s assets, including the assets owned by its subsidiaries.

The Fed’s claim on GM is junior only to the existing, secured, revolving credit facility (a pittance at about $5 billion). I repeat: GM’s federal loans are senior to all GM’s creditors, including the retiree trust claims (around $27 billion), GM bondholders ($29 billion) and the trade payables owed to suppliers ($22 billion).

Moving forward, leaving all of those “stakeholders” behind, “good” GM is looking for another $22 billion from the Treasury to fund its future operations. Oh, and an additional $6.6 billion to develop energy efficient vehicles and $6 billion from foreign governments. If Santa leaves all these presents under GM’s Christmas tree, all of this new money would ALSO be senior to existing unsecured creditors, ahead of payments to bondholders, the retiree trust and creditors.

Again, in exchange for their largesse, US (and foreign) taxpayers get a stake in the new, relatively unencumbered “Good” GM. The Treasury Department converts all of its current and upcoming senior secured debt into  junior preferred stock. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, American Leyland.

Here’s the worst part: what if it doesn’t work? What if the PTFOA puts the paddles on the new, cancer-free GM and the patient fails to revive? I mean, if consumers are ignoring, eschewing and even heckling “old” GM, why does anyone think that “new” GM will recover or even maintain life-sustaining market share?

To pull that one off, Chevillac would have to steal customers from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Audi, Lexus and all the rest. In five years, maybe. Short term? No NSFWing way. Damaged brands, damaged company. And if this American Leyland plan bites the dust, all of that preferred stock will be completely, 100 percent worthless.

Alternatively, the PTFOA could put GM into Chapter 7 and let someone try to make a go of whatever bits are make-a-go-able. And if politics demand it, Uncle Sam could spend that $34.6 billion worth of additional funds sending every UAW worker and supplier employee and Detroit-area pump jockey a big fat check.

Assuming (as we must) that common sense has nothing to do with this, the flip side is the really scary bit. What are the feds willing to do to “protect” their (your) investment in GM? As the “investment” gets larger, so does the pressure to make sure it doesn’t fail. The PTFOA has already fired GM’s CEO, gelded its Board of Bystanders and manipulated the bailout bill to send the automaker tens of thousands of sales. What’s next?

Whatever it is, you can bet it won’t benefit the American consumer.

By on April 6, 2009

GM’s new CEO took to the airwaves on Sunday. If industry watchers had any doubts that Fritz Henderson is cut from the same cloth as his discredited, defenestrated predecessor, Henderson’s appearance on Meet The Press removed them. Like Rick Wagoner before him, Henderson’s facile, vague and evasive responses—re: the epic train wreck known as General Motors—revealed the full genius of the Talking Heads’ lyricists. “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything,” David Gregory forgot to interject. Alternatively, we could make this Churchillian: Never have so few said so little about so much. Even so, OMG.

There, on national TV, GM CEO Fritz Henderson showed the world (and GM customers) that he’s a craven corporate spinmeister. While trying to reassure everyone about everything, he singularly failed to reassure anyone about anything. In both tone and content, Henderson showed the wisdom of rule number one in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: “get a job in a big firm.”

What GM needs is a CEO who can create root and branch reform. What they got is a man who went out of his way to tell denizens of GM’s poisonous corporate culture that not a single ass is in any danger of being kicked.

No surprise there. Red Ink Rick Wagoner’s hand-picked successor is a caretaker CEO, elevated to his promised position through primogeniture, rather than any talent for crisis management. As planned.

The Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) knew they were going to fire Rick Wagoner before the Treasury Department assigned them email accounts. Steve Rattner and friends had plenty of time to find a Mulally-like outsider ready, willing and able to triage GM ahead of, in the midst of, and after bankruptcy. Clearly, that’s not what the PTFOA wanted. What they wanted was what they got: a patsy.

Henderson is nothing more or less than a powerless placeholder. As the representative of “old” broken ass General Motors, the company’s new CEO is free to tell his company’s new masters how to run the terminally ill automaker. Henderson can advise the PTFOA which national and international brands should survive the forthcoming cull. He can nominate the new product mix. Anything. But the moment Henderson’s recommendations clash with the will of the people, the PTFOA can (and will) turn to him and say “What the fuck do YOU know about it?”

Which is both true and deeply worrying.

Suffice it to say, we could ask the PTFOA the same question with even LESS chance of a satisfactory answer. Although the majority of their members drive foreign cars, the task force has no more idea about successful automotive design, branding, marketing and sales than GM’s current management. If TTAC’s Best and Brightest are still arguing how to “save” GM, what chance do a bunch of politically appointed ex-journalists, lawyers and professional bureaucrats have?

Never mind. Despite their ignorance over industry matters, Barack’s automotive army is large and in charge. And they aim to keep it that way. Surrender power over GM’s fate to a new, independent, charismatic CEO? No way. Not yet, anyway. Not until the Treasury men have done whatever it is they need to do (they’ll figure that out as they go) to “protect the taxpayer.” Oh, and save the planet.

Yes, there is that. Pundits who read the PTFOA’s excoriation of GM’s vaporware Volt mistake the quango’s criticism of a tree-hugging Hail Mary as recognition that GM has to, you know, sell something that people want to buy—even if it’s not an electric car.

Wrong. President Obama’s base demands federal intervention within the evil, electric car killing industry. The feds must reduce global warming, eliminate SUVs and generally get American consumers to do the right thing, whether they want to or not. Believing that PTFOA have subsumed the president’s political agenda to the gods of ROI is, at best, naïve.

As Henderson’s appointment reveals, as the increasing chatter about a “quick” (i.e., non-judicial) bankruptcy indicates, the PTFOA are ensuring that THEY will decide which bits constitute the new, healthy “good” GM, and which bits are shunted into the old, “bad” GM. “Good” as in environmentally and union-friendly, built wherever supportive votes may live (think defense industry). “Bad” as in anything that isn’t environmentally and union-friendly, built outside fertile Democratic voting territory.

It won’t work. At this point, I can’t see GM emerging from bankruptcy as a lean, mean organization, building [at least] two brands’ worth of world class, competitive products.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the PTFOA will eventually step aside for the next presidential proxy. Maybe he’ll be the savvy kick ass CEO GM needs to survive. Until then, Henderson. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich said, change is traumatic. We ain’t seen nothing yet. Then again, maybe we have.

By on April 3, 2009

I view the government’s intervention in GM’s business (or lack thereof) as automotive ebola. But we can all agree on one thing: the president’s decision to fire GM CEO Rick Wagoner was a no-brainer. Giving the Harvard MBA and GM lifer millions of dollars to guide GM to viability was like letting Al-Qaeda run a liberal arts university. Now that Wagoner’s gone, his supporters are notable by their absence. That’s because deep-sixing Red Ink Rick was the right thing to do. It was also the easy thing to do. While the MSM is lionizing Steve Rattner, the head of the presidential quango that defenestrated the GM CEO, the Obama administration’s wallow in the GM quagmire is just beginning.

There is no longer any doubt that GM is headed for bankruptcy. The GM C11 gestalt is growing by the day, of which there are only 56 left. The question is no longer “if” GM will file but “how.” Yesterday, GM’s federally elevated Chairman of the Board, Kent Kresa, signed his name to a plan unofficially called “Good GM, Bad GM.” In this scenario, the government would split GM into two companies, “old” (bad) and “new” (good). GM’s best bits would become part of the unencumbered business. The remaining dreck would be sold or liquidated.

It’s a good idea—in theory. Separating the potentially profitable wheat from the same old chaff would be a relatively rapid way to reinvent the American icon. But there’s a good reason why this practice isn’t the norm: someone’s got to decide which part of GM is Michael Knight and which part’s his evil twin Garth.

In a normal bankruptcy, management creates a recovery plan. A federal judge (or judges) rules on the plan, and then oversees its execution. The judge can demand forensic accounts, call witnesses, order asset sales, protect assets, etc. Yes, yes, Delphi; the former GM parts maker that’s been in Judge Robert Drain’s bankruptcy court since the late Pleistocene era. But that doesn’t obviate the main advantage of a judicial bankruptcy process: someone without an axe to grind has the power to make sure that creditors and other “stakeholders” aren’t screwed.

Lest we forget, GM is [still] a vast, sprawling enterprise, with thousands of dealers, suppliers, workers and former workers. Both here and abroad. All dependent on various parts of GM’s business for their survival. A triage-trained bankruptcy judge decides the least bad options for all concerned.

Now imagine the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) deciding which bits of GM fall into the “good” (life) or “bad” (death) column.

First of all, the separation poses a huge philosophical conundrum. What is the new GM and why? If you subscribe to the theory that Chevrolet and Cadillac are the only GM brands worth saving, what of GMC, which accounts for a large chunk of GM’s truck biz? Kill or consolidate?

Viability means profitability, which requires both situational awareness and dedication to a specific competitive advantage (a.k.a. a unique selling point). The PTFOA’s recent report said the money-making GM of the future would build and sell reliable, practical, safe and fuel efficient vehicles. Must. Choose. One. Oh, and WTH does any of that have to do with Cadillac?

Secondly, on a more practical level, holy shit. GM has assets all over the world, with enough overlap to keep bean counters busy for decades (as it has). So which vehicles will these “good” brands sell, and where will they be made? Will the new GM only build vehicles in the U.S.? Given that some of the best/most profitable GM products are fabricated outside of the United States, an America-first approach would put the “good” GM at a huge competitive disadvantage.

Which, of course, leads us to the most important thumbs-up, thumbs-down consideration of all: politics. In a judge’s case, there is no political consideration. He or she is beholden to no single constituency. In contrast, the PTFOA. Anyone who thinks that this politically appointed body will be ready, willing and able to set aside partisan politics to look after the taxpayer’s best financial interest is woefully naive.

If nothing else, we’ve not heard the last of the United Auto Workers (UAW). So far, the union’s done all that they could do to “help” GM: nothing (i.e. no major concessions). The next step: make sure the PTFOA looks after UAW members’ interests in the pre-pack process. And while that’s happening, political markers are already being called in. How many pols with a GM factory in their jurisdiction have PTFOA boss Timothy Geithner in their sights? I’m thinking . . . all of them.

So here’s my idea: the PTFOA calls in GM’s federal loans. GM files for Chapter 11 protection. A bankruptcy judge does his or her thing. The feds (that’s you and me) provide debtor-in-possession financing (I’d prefer C7 but no one asked me). Fair enough?

By on March 31, 2009

Most auto industry observers have lauded President Obama’s decision to defenestrate GM CEO Rick Wagoner and his Board of Bystanders. Their logic is as simple as one, two, three. One: U.S. taxpayers have “loaned” The General billions of dollars. Two: GM’s management failed to provide a viable viability plan to return the money. Three: the presidential putsch protects America’s “investment” in General Motors. Yes, well, protect THIS. When GM files for bankruptcy 59 days hence, $17.4 to $19.5 billion worth of taxpayer money will disappear down a rathole, never to return. That’s a conservative estimate of the total amount of federal “loans” and grants and God-knows-what that will be wiped out the moment the judge signs GM’s C11 papers. Oh, and after we kiss that cash goodbye, U.S. taxpayers will provide the cratered car maker with debtor-in-possession financing. In other words, more money. And who’s to say that money will ever be repaid? What’s the end game? Is there one?

President Obama justified his intervention in the American automobile industry with a vision of a revitalized General Motors. (Chrysler not so much.) With Uncle Sam’s help, GM will one day rise again. It will produce the clean-running, high mileage vehicles of the future, built right here in the U.S. by yada yada yada. Seriously? Does anyone seriously believe that a post-Chapter 11 General Motors will build and sell products that will be the envy of the world?

Post-C11, GM will trim down to two brands: Chevrolet and Cadillac. Costs will be cut to the bone. The United Auto Workers’ power will be denuded. Legacy issues? Banished. Bloated dealer network? Decimated. GM may even emerge from C11 with a Mulally-like leader and a fiercely independent and intelligent Board of Directors; ready, willing and able to reinvent GM’s poisonous corporate culture. And then . . . GM will face a leaner, hungrier, larger Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, VW and Ford.

Good luck with that.

Once upon a time, GM could have entered bankruptcy, cleaned its own clock and survived. The talent locked-up inside the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker could have been refocused, redeployed and redirected. But CEO Rick Wagoner couldn’t see the diem, never mind carpe it. His delay and denial made GM’s recovery both more expensive and less likely.

Amongst other Shiva-like maneuvers, Wagoner created four sales “channels” for GM’s eight stricken car brands, trading internecine warfare for outright paralysis. As resources diminished, the key question—who makes what for whom when, where, why and at what price point—became a Gordian knot. “Why” became “why not” became “whatever.” A Cadillac sports wagon? You betcha. GM’s last next big thing, the pedestal-dwelling plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, is the poster boy for the company’s headless chickenism.

And now, nothing. GM Car Czar Bob Lutz has retreated into the shadows, counting the days until he collects his bankruptcy-proof pension, watching as the company’s creative process (such as it is) slips into chaos. Meanwhile, GM’s Best and Brightest have left the building. The Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) rightly ripped Red Ink Rick’s ridiculous rabble a new REDACTED, but their “restructuring fact sheet” makes one wonder about their ability steer a course into the future. What’s the plan, Stan?

“The new GM will have a significant focus on developing high fuel-efficiency cars that have broad consumer appeal because they are cost-effective, have good performance and are reliable, durable and safe.” PC it may be, but that hardly sounds like an ideal recipe for world-class Cadillacs. Which leaves Chevrolet. Trying to play catch-up with battle-hardened, technologically adept, customer retaining competition.

Again, good luck with that.

Fifty-nine days from today, GM will file for C11. Chevy and Cadillac will eventually emerge from the rubble. The chosen ones will survive until they come off the federal teat. They may even survive after that. But they will be damaged brands—welfare queens tainted by their association with the federal government. Even if Chevrolet and Cadillac create world-beating products with industry-leading customer service, they will have the stench of corruption. Their logos will be a malodorous reminder that they achieved their success off the backs of the American taxpayer, rather than honest labor.

OK, maybe that’s a bit much. Americans love a comeback kid. And what late 1940s industry expert could have predicted that his fellow countrymen would elevate Japanese brands to the top of the family and luxury car sales charts? But do we really have to pay twice for GM’s resurrection?

If General Motors had filed for Chapter 11 when they coulda shoulda, no tax money would have been harmed in the making of this [entirely theoretical] renaissance. As it currently stands, there is no end point. Sure, Chrysler repaid its loans way back when and . . . oh dear. Despite all that government help they’re in a bit of mess now aren’t they? You know, in a DOA sort of way. So maybe, just maybe, government assistance is a form of assisted suicide. Perish the thought.

By on March 29, 2009

General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner is set to resign his position tomorrow. The timing of Wagoner’s departure is clearly symbolic. It’s meant to signal the nation that it’s OK throw bailout billions GM’s way because it’s a new day. Well, there’s a new guy at the top, anyway. Which may or may not be true, depending on whether or not Wagoner’s hand-picked successor and virtual clone Fritz Henderson inherits the job. If Henderson gets the nod, the symbolism of Wagoner’s defenestration will be far richer than its architects intended. For it will confirm the growing suspicion that the president’s mantra of hope and change is heavy on the hope and light on the change. And while that plays out, Wagoner’s resignation will eventually be seen as a way point on a journey of self-destruction, rather than a turning point on a bridge to . . . nowhere.

This is not the place for a post mortem examination of Rick Wagoner’s career as a GM lifer. There is no need nor room for debate about Wagoner’s negative impact on the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker. By any objective metric—market share, profitability, share price, capitalization, anything—Wagoner’s tenure at the top was an abject, epic failure. In fact, I pronounced Wagoner R.I.P. three years ago, in March 2006. I said it then, I’ll say it now: it’s too late to save General Motors. General George S. Patton himself could rise up from the dead, slap a few of Wagoner’s soldiers, assume command and fail. All Wagoner’s replacement can do, indeed should do, is prepare the automaker for bankruptcy.

Wagoner leaves GM buried [barely] alive under a Himalayan mountain of debt, much of it his creation (under the guise of lowering operating costs). The company which once held the title as the world’s most profitable corporation now carries some $46.5B worth of debt. President Obama could add 20 or 30 or even 50 billion dollars in “loans” for GM tomorrow. He could force a 100 percent debt-for-equity swap for ten cents on the dollar amongst GM’s bondholders. He could dictate that the United Auto Workers accept stock in lieu of ANY contribution to its Mother of All Health Care Funds. And it still wouldn’t be enough to extricate General Motors from its current predicament.

GM has been and will continue to be an over-dealered, under-funded mess. Its brands are a complete disaster. Even the brands with some remaining psychological equity—Chevrolet and Cadillac chief amongst them—are suffering from bailout backlash as Americans grow angry at the increasingly obvious black hole that is Bailout Nation. With a handful of notable exceptions (mainly because they ARE exceptions), GM’s products are not competitive. And, lest we forget, the U.S. new car market is still contracting violently, with millions of unsold units just waiting for their makers to give up, sell them at any price and further depress sales and profits. In short, GM currently has zero opportunity for relative or absolute growth.

Given this hopeless morass, Wagoner’s resignation comes at the worst possible moment. It will fuel the boundless, baseless optimism which led to the first $17.4B GM bailout (not including a share of the Department of Energy’s $25B retooling loans or the $1B GMAC-related loan). Of course, that’s the entire point: Wagoner’s sword-falling routine gives the Obama administration and his Presidential Task Force on Automobiles something “concrete” upon which to pin their empty message of future auto industry transformation. What’s more, with Wagoner out of the way, the president can amp-up his electric car and high mileage dreams. See? We’re not subsidizing the same old SUV-building bastards. We’re reinventing the car industry!

What’s the bet Wagoner will announce his resignation without a single mea culpa? His statement will be as short as it will be meaningless. Seed-sowing, torch passing, foundation building—no matter what the metaphor, the underlying message will be “I prepared GM for the success to follow.” The fact that there will be no success to follow is neither here nor there. The feds’ willingness to keep GM on taxpayer funded life support means that Wagoner will be enjoying the fruits of his labors—including his bankruptcy-proof pension—even as those who inherit his legacy of his incompetence struggle to extricate anything of value from the inevitable corporate carnage.

I can’t decide whether Wagoner’s career at GM is Wagnerian, Chekovian (Cherry Orchard), Millerian (Death of a Salesman) or Shakespearean (King Lear). In the final analysis, it’s all of the above. And as long as we’re going down the literary path, Wagoner is the ultimate Hollow Man. Although news of his resignation arrives with something of a bang, the company Wagoner guided will not end with equal force. Thanks to the men at the top of the GM pyramid it will end with a whimper.

By on March 26, 2009

You knew this would happen.  Whenever things go wrong or come to an end we can’t help but look back and try to figure out why. To look for that one pivotal event that changed the course of events forever. So what did it for GM? When did it happen? After careful analysis I pinpoint their demise to the 3.8L V6 (a.k.a the 231) of the 1970s.

First, the runners up and why they didn’t make the final cut.  The Corvair certainly garnered a lot of bad press for being “Unsafe At Any Speed.” For all of its bad points, including the gas fired heater, it just wasn’t that bad of a car. Furthermore, it was a niche vehicle and never sold in enough numbers to really cause any permanent damage to the then-mighty GM.  Remember, in the 1960s GM was responsible for selling over 50% of the vehicles in the US.  Many look back at the Corvair as nothing more than an experiment that didn’t work.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. GM introduces the Vega, its response to the fuel efficient imports, just in time for the oil embargo of 1973. To say the Chevy Vega was ill-conceived is an understatement. First, the GM hierarchy dismissed the warnings of their engineers that an aluminum engine block needs cast iron liners. Then they outsourced cheap Japanese steel that turned to aluminum foil after just a few winters. It was clearly a losing situation for GM as they got bogged down spending millions sidelining cars to replace engines and recalling others to replace fenders.

So why didn’t the Vega make the final cut? Truth be told it just wasn’t the meat of the market for GM then. Furthermore, the public was just starting to accept little cars that ran on four cylinders and many didn’t believe a four cylinder could be durable enough to hold up in the long run anyway.

Which brings us to our winner: the 3.8-liter V6. Or the 231, as it was more commonly known back then (it was more common to refer to engine size in cubic inches not liters). It quietly appeared on the scene then gained wide spread use in 1978. That year saw a major redux across the A-body line: Oldsmobile Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Regal. These were General Motors’ bread and butter products and they were wildly successful. And it is here that GM makes its final, fatal collision; the corporate Titanic hitting the metaphorical iceberg.

GM sent these cars out of the factory with a multitude of quality glitches of which 231 engine issues were no small part. The oil pump was poorly designed, causing the oil pressure to sink dangerously low. By the time the consumer figured out something untoward was happening, the engine was apt to have blown a bearing or, worse, seized up. Game over. If your 231 engine didn’t throw a bearing, there were transmission “issues.” Cracked springs in the suspension. Rear wheel cylinders that fell off of their backing plates. All of this pushed many in the public towards their GM repair shop, and then, imports. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, GM should have jumped in and cleaned up this multifarious mechanical disaster with honor and swiftness. At the time, they had enough cash to make all their customers whole. It would have been an extremely expensive PR disaster, but pretending there wasn’t a problem sealed their fate with hundreds of thousands of former loyalists.

GM tried to run from the warranty claims. Worse, they continued producing the 231 well into the 1980s. In the years that followed, it was mostly more of the same. GM sent out V8s with soft camshafts, torque steering X-cars and Fieros a quart low on oil. As the quality issues stacked up, GM’s market share deteriorated.

In the 1990s, they had one last chance. Cash rich from the SUV craze, GM could have re-invested the profits into their cars to make them mechanically-bulletproof world-beaters. Sadly, they squandered on brands and products and deals they didn’t need. And so here we sit in 2009, trying to bail them out, trying to figure out how to turnaround a submerged leviathan.

The astute reader will have noticed that I’ve left out the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the other model built off the A-body and a major player in 1978. The Monte Carlo also had a 3.8-liter V6. But that engine was derived from a Chevrolet design: it had 229 cubic inches, not 231. Those two cubic inches helped make the 229 much more sprightly. And durable. If GM had used the 229 in the rest of their divisions . . .

Imagine that: two measly cubic inches could have changed the course of GM forever. Then again, I doubt it. When a company can’t recognize, admit and correct its mistakes, it’s a rudderless ship bound to hit something, eventually.

By on March 15, 2009

I’ve been been having a “difference of opinion” with my step-daughter’s fifth-grade teachers. For some reason, they’ve decided to give Sasha homework deadlines and let her sort out her own schedule. Unfortunately, no one taught her self-directed, off-site time management. Not surprisingly, except for the deadline itself, Sasha’s “planner” was empty: she had no idea how long assignments would take. She couldn’t prioritize her work or organize her home life. Mind you, she had goals: finish her homework, get good grades, make it to middle school. But she didn’t have a workable plan. Remind you of anyone?

Last week, GM announced increased production for the second financial quarter. The company’s spinmeisters claimed the jump relates to models that are selling well—as opposed to the tens of thousands of vehicles choking dealer lots or waiting to choke dealer lots. In truth, in today’s moribund new car market, nothing GM builds is selling well enough to justify a 45 percent production increase. So what, pray tell, is GM’s strategy?

Who knows? GM’s “viability plan” is like Sasha’s planner: big empty spaces leading up to large, laudable goals. GM knows it has to cut labor costs, swap debt for equity and cull and/or refocus brands. It knows it has to build cars that people will buy at a price that earns the company a profit. It knows it has to return to profitability to pay back its loans. But it doesn’t have a coherent, measurable plan for how to get there from here.

Any such plan would have to ape Sasha’s new homework system, with little tick boxes for every assigned task in every subject every day of the week. If GM wants us to believe the plug-in electric/gas hybrid Chevy Volt is The One, they must give us the way-points on the road to Damascus. How much, when, leading to what profit?

RenCen would never go for it, for one simple reason: the new system would introduce accountability. It’s a concept that’s entirely antithetical to GM’s modus operandi.

And so, true to form, GM is headless chickening out. The company is running around in random patterns, trying to achieve . . . something. Anything. They’re canceling and restarting development programs. Negotiating union concessions that aren’t. Building and not building and then building vehicles. Killing but not killing brands. Asking for a $2 billion advance on its next bailout bonanza, and then withdrawing the request. Pleading for Euro-bailout bucks while talking about spin-offs.

I half expect GM CEO Rick Wagoner to slap a Yellow Zowie on his head, lean into the cameras and say, “Somebody STOP me!”

But, no. Quite the opposite. The Presidential Task Force on Autos (PTFOA) seems hell-bent on enabling GM’s cultural predisposition to throw NSFW against the wall, run back to avoid the splatter, and then see what sticks. Otherwise, the PTFOA would have joined German and Swedish ministers and demanded that GM revise their turnaround plan, instead of journeying to Motown for Volt joy rides.

In today’s Boston Globe, scribe Jake Bennett uses GM’s fabled “29” pin—an inter-executive admonition to GM suits to recapture 29 percent of U.S. market share—to make the same point: goals without careful implementation and constant, rigorous monitoring are an excellent way to completely screw up everything. Ipso bloody facto. Last time I looked, the management style practiced by Rick Wagoner’s mob had led the American automaker straight onto federal welfare.

Still, it’s worth pausing to contemplate the possibility that CEO Jack Smith’s commitment to restoring General Motors’ US market share to 29 percent (already down from over 39 percent) helped drive the automaker towards high volume, low profit fleet sales; anyone-with-a-pulse financing, ill-advised hook-ups with foreign automakers and all the other Wagoner-led fiatscos. Perhaps GM’s road to hell had a little sign on the median reminding the Powers That Be that “the ends justify the means” (right next to “Kiss Ass and Cover. The Millions You Earn Will be Your Own.”).

I’d like to know when those “29” pins fell out of fashion at RenCen. When did they give up on that company-wide goal? Did the pins hit the bin when GM’s market share fell below 25 percent? Twenty-two? Twenty? At some point in GM’s decline and fall, did someone high up in the organization actually say “Take off that stupid pin Larry”? Or was it more of a group think deal, where Rick left his “29” pin in the dresser drawer and his boys got the message? Did anyone think to replace the pins with . . . something? Something specific?

I’d like to see an actual “29” pin (jpeg to [email protected]). Was it made of bronze or lead? Has it tarnished during the last nine years? Was the number inlayed? Where was it made, the US or China? As I try to teach Sasha, if you don’t respect your work, why should anyone else?

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