Editorial: Bailout Watch 527: Bankruptcy Sucks. Some More Than Others

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
editorial bailout watch 527 bankruptcy sucks some more than others

Back in the day, I recommended Chapter 11 for GM and Chrysler. With court protection, the American automakers could ditch non-competitive union contracts, pare bloated dealer networks, terminate extraneous products and sell-off non-core brands. In ’05, consumer confidence was strong. All three automakers had plenty of cash and assets. If they had filed then, they could have reinvented themselves and . . . Forget it. I was wrong. These automakers are so poorly run that an earlier bankruptcy would only have prolonged the misery. How could I think otherwise when Chrysler and GM’s idea of a “surgical” bankruptcy is to swing an axe at the patient’s diseased limbs, laugh at their next of kin, storm out of the operating theater, hand the case over to another doctor and repair to Aruba?

Earlier today, GM CEO Fritz Henderson mirrored a previous statement by Chrysler Co-Prez Jim Press. Henderson revealed that GM also had no idea which dealers would get the old heave-ho and which would help the “new” automaker pay back American taxpayers for their [next not previous] multi-billion dollar “investment” in American jobs (or some such thing). Like Press, Henderson assured his store owners that the cuts were definitely on his “to do” list.

GM’s indecisiveness is almost understandable, given that not making decisions is a key part of their corporate culture. But Chrysler is the automaker whose private equity owners told us time and time again that their main advantage was speed (fast decisions, not amphetamines). Chrysler’s been in Chapter 11 for eleven days. And yet . . .

“Unfortunately, there will be dealers who will not go forward,” Press said on a conference call with retailers. “We do not have a finalized plan. We don’t have identification of who. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. We have nothing to announce today other than this is all in flux.”

In fact, it looks like Chrysler won’t be paying some 25 percent of its dealers for warranty work already performed or incentives already earned. Any possibility of either automakers creating some team spirit (a.k.a. “shared sacrifice”) down at the dealer level—to accompany the birth of the new Chrysler and new GM—has been strangled in its crib.

While aggrieved consumers have every reason to savor the fact that GM and Chrysler are doing the same thing to their dealers that their dealers did to them re: warranty claims—waffle, prevaricate and then tell them to FO&D—both GM and Chrysler’s survival depends on its stores. Keeping the franchisees in limbo is madness. These guys have lawyers, and they know how to use them.

As we reported earlier, Chrysler is bouncing checks to customers and recently suspended lemon law payments. We’ve also chronicled the red tape surrounding federally subsidized payments to GM and Chrysler’s beleaguered suppliers. And no one knows who’s gonna build what, when or where. Not to put too fine a point on it, Chrysler is disintegrating into chaos. GM is showing every sign of following suit.

All this before GM and Chrysler’s key suppliers go belly-up, and the real action starts down at the courthouse, when creditors do everything in their power to make sure they get a piece of whatever there is left to get a piece of. And then Chrysler and GM have to deal with integrating (i.e., surrendering) to their new foreign partners (i.e., masters). All while their competitors get leaner and meaner, and the American public learns than bankruptcy means never having to say you’re sorry.

Clearly, Chrysler and GM didn’t prepare for bankruptcy. Equally pellucid: neither automaker is equipped to deal with it now, or in the future, when things will get a whole lot more complicated. Then again, why would they?

Both automakers have the same schlemiels that got them into this mess trying to get them out. GM CEO Fritz Henderson is no less a product of the “GM Way” than ex-GM CEO’s Rick Wagoner, the man whose failure will be the fodder of business school curricula a hundred years hence. Henderson may be trying to make a good job of an impossible situation. But he isn’t.

Meanwhile, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is . . . hey, where IS Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli? Anyway, putting Nardelli in charge of the recovery would be like hiring the man who ran Home Depot into the ground to lead a major manufacturing company. Oh wait . . .

The blame for this mess—and by that I mean the current and future mess rather than the mess that lead to this mess—falls squarely on the shoulders of the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA). While I was against “bridge loans” to GM and Chrysler and oppose any further subsidy to these zombie automakers, the PTFOA had one chance and one chance only to “save” Detroit: appoint honest-to-God leaders at the top of both companies. They blew it. And now we’re all paying the price. Literally.

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  • Windswords Windswords on May 12, 2009

    CliffG: "Seriously, no rational human being can possibly think that Chrysler has any kind of long term future at this point." You may be right, but what I don't understand is, why do you think Chrysler is DOA but not GM? GM's last "golden age" if you believe the B&B here was 50-40 years ago, not 15-10 years ago like Chrysler. Even with the new as-we-know-it GM going forward without Pontiac and 1200 or so less dealers (and that's if they can pull it off), they will still have too many brands and too many dealers. They are still run by beancounters, they still have not gotten out of the denial stage that everyone here talks about. I said along time ago that GM is not viable, no matter what happens to Chrysler or Ford. And Ford is getting closer to that state with every passing month. Now I wonder who is in denial. You know I'm beginning to think that Chrysler is like the Portrait of Dorian Grey. All the mistakes, miscues, bad designs, bad business decisions, office politics, faulty engineering, and underestimation of foreign competition by Ford and GM are added to the same by Chrysler and then it's all dumped into that company so that like the portrait it becomes ugly and detestable so that Ford and GM can look good in our eyes. Then if we could just get rid of Chrysler once and for all it will be sunshine and roses for the remaining two. I know there is a psychological term for this somewhere...

  • Louche Louche on May 14, 2009

    The ancient Greeks would pick a Scapegoat when horrible things like a plague befell them. They kept him housed and fed for a year, but when the year had passed, he was stoned to death or cast from a cliff taking (it was hoped) all the evil and misfortune with him. Scapegoat Chrysler. It's worth a try.

  • Parkave231 Collector's Edition hood ornament or GTFO.
  • Dave M. Once again Mustang remains solely on the throne. But obviously the day of the ponycar has long passed....
  • Art Vandelay The car so nice they killed it…twice
  • Ryan The hybrid EX model lists at about CAD$39,000 in Canada, including delivery charges. No Premium package is available for it here.
  • Golden2husky A great driver's car let down by down right dangerous visibility - in any version. Had the Camaro had a qulity interior and acceptable visibility we'd have one in our driveway as my wife loves the way they look and drive.