By on April 20, 2009

Props to automotive consultant Maryann Keller for calling for GM to get its shit together, I mean “create a sense of urgency” since 1875, or thereabouts. Kudos for Keller’s willingness to predict a GM C11 early and often. And praise be for loaning TTAC the writing talents of Mr. Ken Elias. OK, so. . . Keller’s column in Automotive News [sub] is suffused with Annie-like optimism for a post-C11 GM. With one a catch. Chevillac’s success depends on the “smaller, leaner and cost-competitive company‘s” ability to secure a champion who can administer strong medicine to GM’s poisonous corporate culture. Before we deal with Ms. Keller’s “if you build it, he will come” theory, here’s a taste of her sunwillcomeouttomorrowism:

Let’s face it: Much of the success of the Japanese auto companies in the United States came about as a result of Detroit’s failures. GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler made it easy for the competition by not matching them in quality, not renewing their product lineups on a timely basis, virtually ignoring the sedan buyer and diverting resources away from North America and even away from auto assembly.

If GM restructures quickly, it can emerge as the low-cost producer in North America and use that position to gain market share quickly.

I don’t see how Chevrolet or Cadillac can become low-cost producers in North America. Does anyone seriously expect Chevillac’s UAW employees to labor for lower wages than their non-union American counterparts? Or, for that matter, Korean or Chinese workers? So where’s the competitive cost advantage going to come from? More efficient factories? Streamlined management? Better marketing? What?

Even if Chevy could undercut its competitors’ costs, gaining marketshare, never mind gaining market share quickly, is so far from a done deal it may not even be possible, never mind likely.

Chevrolet is not a viable automaker. Aside from pickups and a superabundance of dealerships, they ain’t got game. The Volt is an inside joke.The Malibu isn’t stealing significant sales from Toyonidssan. The new Camaro is a niche product. Ditto the Corvette, only more so. The Aveo is a piece of crap. The Traverse surmounts nada. Etc.

In fact, rebuilding Chevy isn’t simply a matter of throwing billions at existing products, or spending billions on creating new ones. It would take at least decade to do something about the brand itself, which is both damaged and virtually meaningless.

In contrast, Cadillac doesn’t need cost savings; it need vehicles that are significantly better than those made by Lexus, Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Cadillac also needs a stronger brand than its German or Japanes competitors. This for the automaker hell bent on building a station wagon, a rebadged SUV-lite, a blinged-out Tahoe and a lower-priced sedan than the CTS.

While MAK’s right that the transplants built their initial success on Detroit’s failures, there’s no reason to think the “usurpers” will now drop the ball. Though MAK tries to make the case:

Ironically, some of GM’s competitors aren’t looking invincible anymore. At ¥100 to the dollar, imports from Japan aren’t profitable. Nissan Motor Co. will lose money this year; and, despite Carlos Ghosn’s magic, it has yet to demonstrate consistent product strength.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s quality is not rock-solid anymore. The residual values of its vehicles are falling, and product proliferation is confusing buyers and dealers. The blind quest to be No. 1 left Toyota with global excess capacity.

Sorry, but Toyota and Nissan are hardly standing still. They’re rectifying their mistakes, readying themselves to keep kicking Motown’s ass. And what of Honda? Hyundai? Ford? Fiat? Just joking.

Anyway, MAK thinks Chevillac’s future comes down to people. True, but what are GM’s chances of finding someone to lead Chevillac to victory?

The GM board of directors bears responsibility for the company’s fate. The most important responsibility of the board is naming and firing the CEO. . .

The GM board deserves a failing grade, and the new GM deserves directors who will be fully engaged. The new board has to ensure that the vitality of the new company isn’t squandered as soon as there is evidence of a comeback.

This would be a good time to mention the fact that a federal committee is in complete control of GM’s Board of Directors. They just fired GM’s CEO, and installed his clone at the helm. How confident does that make you feel?

Not that I’m suggesting that an unelected federal quango made up of bankers and non-auto industry types is incapable of choosing a kick-ass BOD for GM, who would choose the right CEO for the job. I’m saying it.

I never owned a share of General Motors during my 28 years on Wall Street and in the 10 years since. But if bankruptcy delivers a low-cost, competitive company, I’m ready to buy.

And if there’s a clean, low-mileage 2007 Ferrari F360 going for $20k, I’m in. Meanwhile, not.

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45 Comments on “Editorial: Between the Lines: MaryAnn Keller: Post C11 GM Needs A Road Warrior...”


  • avatar
    Rastus

    I really respected MarryAnn when she wrote her book “Rude Awakening”. I think GM is right about now having that “Rude Awakening” she predicted some 20 years ago, wouldn’t you agree?

    As far as having a new “Champion”…Rick Wagoner nor “Fritz the Cat” have (or had) what it takes for head Cheerleader. But then again, GM doesn’t reward cheerleaders! No…GM wants EXACTLY the type of people they put in charge…it is not by mistake.

    In other words, the company is doomed. What they ought to do is focus on being the “Harley Davidson” of the automotive world and focus on nothing BUT pickups. Forget about volume…just become the “crude, rude, and belligerent” company they have always been….they just need to “refine” that image.

    Have each pickup come standard with tacky decals, Calvin pissing on everything stickers, mud flaps, emphasize 1940’s technology (“push-rods”), and maybe even work with a designer to create tacky leather outfits…for example, leather vests with a huge Chevrolet bow-tie on the back and a special compartment on your sleeve for your pack of cigs…you know, things like that.

    Whereas Daewoo once marketed on college campuses, Chevrolet can market their wares at shipyards, coal mines, and state/federal prison facilities.

    They would do just fiiiiine….trust me.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Even if the UAW agrees to wage and benefit cuts, I don’t believe the members themselves will be terribly motivated to ensure they put together a great product. Think about how great will morale be after taking a nice, fat haircut.

    It’s not just GM that needs a brain and soul transplant. The UAW needs a strong leader who can tell members that days of living high off the hog are over.

  • avatar
    Happy_Endings

    Even if Chevy could undercut its competitors’ costs, gaining marketshare, never mind gaining market share quickly, is so far from a done deal it may not even be possible, never mind likely.

    Didn’t Pch101 post the operating costs for GM and Toyota last week? If I remember correctly, GM’s operating costs are $55B less than Toyota’s. So, GM can’t cut their costs much more unless they go for the poorest quality parts. If they do that, they’ll likely lose even more sales; only getting those shoppers that only care about cost.

  • avatar
    Stu Sidoti

    In the old days of not so long ago when GM had a lot of non-automotive divisions (Buickman can attest to this quite well) it might have made sense to have a bunch of MBA-types running the show. However today, GM appears to be ‘all-in’ with the automotive side as core business, so somewhere at the top has to be someone with some serious automotive credentials and experience calling the shots. In it’s heyday, GM was run by the likes of Ed Cole, John DeLorean, Bill Mitchell and others all who had degrees and careers starting out in Engineering and/or Design. So who is out there today, inside or outside of GM that has that level of automotive gravitas’ to be the new leadership?

  • avatar
    GS650G

    There are a lot of businesses and industries struggling today that are not getting government handouts and taxpayer money. What about them? If we ignore their plight and expect them to finance the rescue of the auto industry then they will either go down or ask for a bailout too. I suspect the latter, and depending on how connected and the number of votes, er I mean employees they have will determine if we pitch in.

    Keller means well but hoping for a Japanese misstep or wishing for talent to arrive at RenCen is not enough. But we have been treated to a diet of Hope for some time now and it’s easy to understand the sentiment.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I recall that the current UAW contract has a 2 tier wage, with new hires coming in at a substantially lower rate than old timers. IF GM can flush enough existing employment thru C11 and start hiring at new-hire rates, lower costs would be possible.

    As for needing a leader, I could not agree more. GM needs a turnaround, even if it is for the “New GM” which emerges from C11. There may be an example in automotive history of a significant turnaround without fresh leadership, but I can’t think of it. (Any ideas, Menno?) There are a lot of turnaround stories in US auto history going back to the 20s and before but every one of them that I can think of involved a new guy with fresh ideas and a gift for leadership. There is none of that at GM so far as I can see.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    If I remember correctly, GM’s operating costs are $55B less than Toyota’s.

    Thanks, you beat me to the punch.

    Ms. Keller does great work, so I’m surprised that she didn’t spend a few minutes looking at their financial statements and comparing them.

    GM is already the low cost producer. Its operating expenses are well below those of Toyota and less than Honda.

    Included in this, GM also has a smaller payroll. As of the end of the 2008 fiscal year, Toyota had 316,000 employees, while GM had 243,000, so GM had about 3/4th’s of the workforce to build about the same quantity of vehicles.

    GM must compete on benefit. It cannot compete on cost, obviously — it has tried to do that for decades, and has failed miserably.

    There is waste in the system, such as excessive badge engineering and the cost of servicing dead brands. But even eliminating those costs will mean nothing if the cars can’t be sold at higher prices, similar to those of the competition.

    It all starts with revenue, which requires sales, which requires customers. People need to go to a Chevy showroom and say to themselves, “Yeah, I really like that and I gotta have that.” How is buying cheaper parts going to accomplish that?

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Given the very public contortions that GM has been going through would you buy a Chevy? As it stands now, unless the price is *very* heavily subsidized, nobody in their right mind would touch anything by GM.

    That’s not how to build a business. This drawn out process has severely damaged GM as a viable company I’m afraid.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I need a hero
    I’m holding out for at hero ’till the end of the night
    He’s gotta be strong
    And he’s gotta be fast
    And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight

    I need a hero
    I’m holding out for a hero ’till the morning light
    He’s gotta be sure
    And it’s gotta be soon
    And he’s gotta be larger than life
    Larger than life

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “So where’s the competitive cost advantage going to come from? ”

    Mexico is one possibility.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    Why is it that so many commentators are constantly willing to blame UAW contracts for the D3’s troubles while never mentioning US health insurance costs?
    US companies bear enormous health care overheads that governments provide in the rest of the world. And last time I checked, labor rates in western Europe and Japan (also unionized) are as high as (or higher than) those of orgonized US autoworkers.
    Just sayin’

  • avatar
    MikeyDee

    I just purchased an ’05 Civic just off of lease, in mint condition for under 12K. Fit and finish are perfect. Engine is perfect. Gas milage is pushing 40mpg on the highway.

    Can anyone on this board show me a GM vehicle that is EVEN REMOTELY CLOSE in quality to this car?

    I didn’t think so.

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    “Nice [and narrow] as it is, the Malibu isn’t stealing sales from Toyonidssan in any significant way, nor is it about to.”

    Good call there – I just saw one sitting side-by-side at a stop light next to a too-small 1st generation Mazda6, and the Mazda looked significantly wider. The Malibu isn’t even in the same league as an Accord or Camry.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Sorry, but Toyota and Nissan are hardly standing still. They’re rectifying their mistakes, readying themselves to keep kicking Motown’s ass.

    I don’t want to make the comments about Toyota, but I disagree with this. Toyota is spinning its wheels bad.

    They screwed up the Tundra launch, still sell the ancient SC430, the new Corolla is below the class leaders, the new Xb pissed off fans of the old one, the Camry can’t win a comparo with its competitors, the 4Runner and Sienna haven’t seen updates in 7 years, the last thing they released was the cannibalizing Venza. Plus, the only new products planned (according to their website) are the new Pruis, a Lexus re-badge of the Prius, and an IS convertible.

    Toyota has the Prius and the LS going for it. Otherwise, they look to be happy just living off their reputation. I don’t think they need to worry about “Good GM”, but Hyundai is coming.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    However today, GM appears to be ‘all-in’ with the automotive side as core business, so somewhere at the top has to be someone with some serious automotive credentials and experience calling the shots. In it’s heyday, GM was run by the likes of Ed Cole, John DeLorean, Bill Mitchell and others all who had degrees and careers starting out in Engineering and/or Design.

    No, no, no.

    It doesn’t matter what credentials someone has. What matters is that said leadership can a) lead and b) is accountable for the success and failure of the business.

    Toyota marched to conquest under the direction of a lawyer (Cho( and a business major (Watanabe) who didn’t care so much about the car as an object of passion as much as they cared about the general pursuit of excellence and sound business. GM, even when under “car guys”, tended to make flashy, high-margin and/or esoteric-and-problematic stuff because the “car guys” weren’t interested in the mundane kinds of product that a company the size of GM must produce in order to be viable.

    GM needs either a recovery specialist, or a visionary, either of whom must have the kind of skills and wherewithal to make hard decisions, work to be profitable. Being car guys, designers or engineers, if not tempered by leadership or business acumen, would be a hinderance, not a help.

  • avatar
    derm81

    Why is it that so many commentators are constantly willing to blame UAW contracts for the D3’s troubles while never mentioning US health insurance costs?

    Ignorance and most have never worked in the auto industry.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Why is it that so many commentators are constantly willing to blame UAW contracts for the D3’s troubles while never mentioning US health insurance costs?

    Part groupthink, part ideology, part unwillingness to admit the real problem.

    On the groupthink and ideology parts, you have a long and ingrained opposition to blanket social coverage in the United States. Even for ostensibly “liberal” media and politicians, carte-blanche social care is not something you champion unless you want to be seen as a marginal voice.

    The larger problem, though, isn’t costs at all. It’s the not enough people are paying enough money for the products in question, which is a failure of management, not labour. Labour is shooting itself in the foot by not mentioning this little factoid, and instead taking a “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” stance with D3 management and against the competition. This plays right into management’s hands, because it takes the heat off them for designing, sourcing and (failing in) selling the cars in the first place.

    Organized labour would have done a lot better for itself if it had prodded the D3 management into producing better cars that people will buy without bribery, rather than go on about “profits going to Japan” or “transplants are just assembled here”.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Organized labour would have done a lot better for itself if it had prodded the D3 management into producing better cars that people will buy without bribery, rather than go on about “profits going to Japan” or “transplants are just assembled here”.

    The solution to this is simple — we need to reinstitute slavery.

    If GM had zero labor costs, the company might be able to breakeven. Throw in some cheaper parts, and they could maybe pull out a tiny profit.

  • avatar
    toxicroach

    So it’s not the union, except for the highly expensive health care benefits it negotiated with GM? I mean, the retirees nearly rioted when they had a 2 dollar deductible forced on them a few years ago. GM’s health care costs are a lot higher than they have to be or would be if they had negotiated less gold plated plans. Which is part of the … union contract.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The solution to this is simple — we need to reinstitute slavery.

    We’re well on the path to indentured servitude, so what’s one more rung down the ladder?

  • avatar
    CamaroKid

    In contrast, Cadillac doesn’t need cost savings; it need vehicles that are significantly better than those made by Lexus, Audi, BMW and Mercedes

    In contrast Cadillac needs more then ONE car that sells. And makes money. Cadillac seems to make everyone’s GM “keep” list and yet here is a division that only sells re-badged GMC’s (Escallade) Chevy’s (SRX) or Buicks (DTS) or sells cars that aren’t competitive with anything (STS) or cost more to make then they sell for (CTS).

    Cadillac, the division with one car that sells… The only thing that this division has going for it is the hope that GM can copy the Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura business model…

    But take a look at Acura sales are imploding and Lexus used to “make it” in North America by marketing Cars that everywhere else in the world were sold as Toyotas. The “better/best” marketing model isn’t working any better then GM’s old “cheap/better/sporty/trucks/low end luxury/not quite high end luxury/Military/Euro weird/we like you” marketing model.

    Cadillac is just as dead a brand as Pontiac, Buick or Oldsmobile. It HAD a great history… It has been brand managed into the ground.

  • avatar
    ceipower

    Mary Ann has wrote some very good books on GM’s failings when most if not all of the main stream press corp seemed more than content living on GM’s Kool-Aid.If she seems to feel optomistic about GM chances of survial , I’d respect that.However , I too am not convienced that GM will ever have the will or the time to get it’s ship back on track.They’ve been rotten for so long , I believe it’s in their DNA now.From the out going Wagner to the guys pushing the brooms.It’s problems run to its very core. Bill C.

  • avatar
    geeber

    psharjinian: Part groupthink, part ideology, part unwillingness to admit the real problem.

    On the groupthink and ideology parts, you have a long and ingrained opposition to blanket social coverage in the United States.

    Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Mercedes and BMW pay for the health insurance of Americans employed in their U.S.-based plants.

    The European operations of GM and Ford use the nationalized systems of the countries where plants and headquarters are located.

    If the lack of a national health care program were the root of the problem, the Japanese and Koreans would have located all North American plants in Canada (or never left Japan or Korea in the first place), and GM and Ford would be shifting production to Canada and Europe.

  • avatar
    Happy_Endings

    So it’s not the union, except for the highly expensive health care benefits it negotiated with GM? I mean, the retirees nearly rioted when they had a 2 dollar deductible forced on them a few years ago. GM’s health care costs are a lot higher than they have to be or would be if they had negotiated less gold plated plans. Which is part of the … union contract.

    Even if GM had no health care costs or retiree benefits, they’d still be losing money. Their operating revenues are $181B. Their operating costs are $185B. That’s a $4B difference.

  • avatar
    Jim Cherry

    Whatever happens with GM and its Chapter 11, the bottom line to the company’s survival is a necessary change of culture. The bean counter cult that’s controlled the company for the last half century is to blame. To understand how suffocating that culture has been, see this: http://www.examiner.com/x-6882-LA-Classic-Cars-Examiner~y2009m4d17-GM-near-bankruptcywhat-happened

  • avatar
    windswords

    “Why is it that so many commentators are constantly willing to blame UAW contracts for the D3’s troubles while never mentioning US health insurance costs?”

    The health care would not cost that much if the UAW had “normal” insurance. By normal I mean an 80/20 split between what the company pays and the workers pay for premiums, an 80/20 split between what the company pays and the workers pay for treatment until a certain deductible is met, and even a deductible to begin with. Amazing what a few changes could do to make health care costs more in line with the rest of us. If you think the UAW is going to give up what they have now in health care for a government program that will try to be as cheap as it can be I want to know what you are smoking.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    If the lack of a national health care program were the root of the problem, the Japanese and Koreans would have located all North American plants in Canada (or never left Japan or Korea in the first place), and GM and Ford would be shifting production to Canada and Europe.

    That was actually my point: health care, contract, pension and similar costs are not the real problem. It never really was, despite the D3 management’s PR campaign to the contrary. Avoiding talking about healthcare and the thorny ideological “gotchas” is just par for the course in the media.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Can anyone point me to the thread in which pch101 posted operating costs of GM/Toyota? I missed it, and would like to read it.

  • avatar
    Happy_Endings

    Can anyone point me to the thread in which pch101 posted operating costs of GM/Toyota? I missed it, and would like to read it.

    His post was at 2:53 on 4/15. They are the 2007 figures so they are before the financial meltdown.

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/editorial-bailout-watch-499-bailout-roundup/

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    @Dynamic88: here

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    CamaroKid has a point here. Cadillac looks good only because the other GM nameplates (and Lincoln and Chrysler) are so pathetic. Cadillac has not been on its A-game since the mid 60s, just like the rest of GM.
    To become a world-class high-end car, Cadillac needs to focus on quality and durability. In the US, people still buy into the Mercedes reputation for quality, even though the car no longer lives up to it. Quality is what sells Lexus and BMW as well.
    I am concerned that Cadillac is trying to become like Audi – great looks, great performance, high maintenance and low resale. They should be aiming at Lexus or the MB of old (or the Cadillac of old, for that matter)- good looks, good performance, low maintenance and high resale.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Happy/Richard Thank you.

  • avatar

    I am the warrior.

  • avatar
    like.a.kite

    It’s actually “if you build it, they will come” but I forget what the book is called (about some guy building a baseball diamond in his field).

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    kevin costner’s “field of dreams” which is a much
    fastasy as this situation with GM

    i don’t even think it’s as simple as that… if by some fantasy they do build a magic car that drives like a BMW 335, is as roomy as an Astro and gets 55mpg and costs like a Korean, it’s not enough to turning things around for another 5, 10, 15 years

    not in our acid global economy

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    The biggest difference I’ve observed between Japanese and American carmakers is that the Japanese companies learn. For example, Detroit is famous for cost savings initiatives when earnings turn down. Invariably, millions of dollars of “savings” are uncovered. But once the initiatives pass, the learning isn’t absorbed, and the same mistakes are made again. That rarely happens at a Japanese company, and is one reason they are more efficient. As Keller points out, there is a need for a radical and revolutionary culture change, this is one of the culture items that must be dealt with. And there are others, but not really all that many. Between the progress that had been made prior to the financial meltdown (quality, design, manufacturing efficiency) and the tough medicine of the current restructuring, there really is an opportunity for a revamped board to install new top management that just might turn the Detroit makers into profit machines. And when that happens, those government loans will get paid back faster than you can say Bob’s-your-uncle… Contrary to the sentiment on this site, there is some real opportunity here

  • avatar
    davey49

    100% Tax on all foreign branded cars is the only thing that will help GM now.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    But CT, that brings everything back to the original q: who will be the leader?

    GM has an unparalleled opportunity for change in its 100 year history. Never has it been so bad that radical new methods and culture would be embraced if a leader was found that would insist on it and was willing to stay the distance.

    Ironically, these times have helped Ford far more than might otherwise be expected as the tough love that Mulally has been pushing would have been undermined by the rank and file in the Glass House if the economy was better. 2 good quarters and it would have been back to the same old scene.

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    @Dimwit: Indeed, that is the key question, who will lead. It’s just that the unwavering opinion on this site is that the question itself is moot, there is no hope for GM. I agree with Keller that it is an extremely tough job, but not impossible.

  • avatar
    tpandw

    I’m now convinced from reading the comments on this site that GM is doomed completely. The observations about Cadillac ring absolutely true, although I’d never thought about it that way. I’m not sure that even Chevrolet is salvageable. This is really sad, but I’m afraid it’s true. I’ve moved from being a proponent of C11 for GM to concluding that only C7 will work.

  • avatar

    Durant’s Spirit Is Alive and Well In The “Buickman”
    Daniel Durant Merrick
    Wednesday, February 1, 2006

    Dear Jim:
    If you will recall we met several years ago back in Flint when my wife and I had the honor through the efforts of Bob Wilson to attend the anniversary dinner for the Corvette Club. It has been a great pleasure to read about your continued persistence and efforts to return General Motors to greatness; and my great grandfather, Billy Durant, would certainly be proud and honored by your passion and knowledge of the automobile industry. There is no doubt in my mind that if he were alive today, you would be his first candidate for his Board of Directors. Keep up the good work and let me know how I can contribute to your vision for the future of GM.

    Sincerely,

    Daniel Durant Merrick

  • avatar
    Dr. No

    Chevrolet and Cadillac will earn their future, or not, based on building cars and trucks people WANT. To be sure, UAW needs to push itself further away from the wage/benefit trough. But whether the production cost is a $1,000 cost advantage OR disadvantage, it is the P.R.O.D.U.C.T.

    This is not molecular biology here.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Never has it been so bad that radical new methods and culture would be embraced if a leader was found that would insist on it and was willing to stay the distance.

    Actually, it has been so bad. Both times were under GM’s ostensible founder, Billy Durant, and both times Durant was kicked out.

    Interestingly, Durant’s mistakes (too many brands, too many flash cars that no one was buying) looked exactly like the kind of mistakes GM is making today.

  • avatar
    doctorv8

    And if there’s a clean, low-mileage 2007 Ferrari F360 going for $20k, I’m in.

    I’d take a 2007 F360 for $200,000, since it would be a “1 of 1” ultra collectible, since the F360 was superceded by the F430 in 2005.

  • avatar

    doctorv8

    Yes, well, there is that.

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