General Motors Zombie Watch 12: Fear of Music

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

When columnist Daniel Howes at the Detroit News gets pissed off enough at GM to write anything other than “we shall see what we shall see,” you know the former bankrupt is doing something very, very wrong. The object of Danny’s ire: the lack of fresh faces at The New GM. “To read the announcement of GM’s new nine-person executive committee, the promotions and the retirements, as I did minutes after it was made public, is to hear the faint strains of Talking Heads singing ‘same as it ever was, same as it ever was’ and to hear more wailing about the chronically clueless GM.” Mind you, Howes isn’t calling GM chronically clueless (that’s our job). He’s angry that “the feds’ pay-and-bonus restrictions essentially make it impossible for CEO Fritz Henderson to woo outside talent for inside jobs.” Woo-hoo! Howes is on the money; out in the real world, $500K doesn’t buy you a reasonable Human Resources manager. But hey, did someone forget the GM stands for Government Motors?

In many ways, GM was born to be nationalized. Over a hundred years or so, the American automaker has gradually evolved to resemble nothing so much as the federal government. Same farrago of competing fiefdoms. Same lack of accountability. Same stifling bureaucracy. Same budgetary constraints (i.e., both too many and none at all). Same global aspirations. Same lack of strategic focus. Same inability to appreciate conditions on the ground. Same inability to make decisions in a timely fashion.

“Reinventing” GM would require massive and sustained root and branch reform; from the top down and the bottom up. Howes [rightly] seizes on Uncle Sam’s pay cap as the central impediment to GM hiring the kind of management that could even begin to refashion its dysfunctional corporate culture. But the curmudgeon fails to connect the dots. The automaker doesn’t want a shake-up.

More specifically, the idea that GM CEO Fritz Henderson’s hands are tied by the Troubled Asset Relief Program’s pay and bonus restrictions is ridiculous. Henderson is a GM lifer. The former Chief Financial Officer. Fellow GM lifer, fellow former Chief Financial Officer, and Ex-CEO Rick Wagoner’s hand-picked successor. Henderson owes his livelihood to the GM status quo. In other words, if Henderson was dedicated to upending the GM’s ossified apple cart, he’d start by firing himself. Since he hasn’t, we must assume that reshuffling GM’s motley crew of proven losers is a labor of love. An ennobling endeavor.

No joke. By convincing the feds to keep GM out of the garbage disposal of a real C11, Fritz has protected the paychecks, pensions and benefits of hundreds of white collar compatriots. Top executives like Gary Cowger and Troy Clarke must have kissed Fritz’s feet when he knocked on their door with the “bad” news. In a genuine bankruptcy, these proven losers would have been ejected from the Renaissance Center without so much as a fare-thee-well (excluding any monies they may have stashed away during decades of serious rooting). You can hear failed Car Czar Bob Lutz’s gleeful cackles echoing through the automaker’s increasingly empty cubicles, as New GM’s new marketing maven tries (and fails) to assimilate his reversal of fortune.

As far as Henderson being “forced” to promote from within, does Howes really think that the CEO considers fast-tracking GM insiders to positions of greater power is bad for GM? Brent Dewar, Chevy’s new VP of Chevrolet, started working for GM in 1978. Bryan Nesbitt, new GM of Cadillac, is a relative piker, but he’s relatively young AND he’s been with GM for eight years. C’mon; these guys are Henderson’s people. Presidential Task Force on Automobiles or not, Fritz Henderson’s desire to protect, preserve and extend his BFF’s careers (to protect, preserve and extend his own) runs so deep it’s instinctive. It’s what GM employees do.

Howes had the strange idea that the New GM would be a new GM. He’s going through the grieving process, as the writer and his fellow cheerleaders realize that GM’s talking a lot, but it’s not saying anything. In fact, the moment Old GM accepted new federal money (and thus ownership) any meaningful idea of a re-imagined GM disappeared. The whole point of the federal bailout: preserve the status quo. And so it has.

New talent? Government agencies—for that is what GM is—are not known for hiring outsiders to create and implement radical change, to improve efficiency and foster accountability. Even in those rare cases where such appointments are made, the existing workers inevitably drag their heels and destroy the outside “virus” before it has a chance to reproduce.

There is only one way GM can truly “reinvent” itself: surrender to the creative destruction inherent in genuine capitalism. It’s an answer that Howes and GM and many, many others find too horrible to contemplate. But it’s the truth.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Hemibill Hemibill on Jul 27, 2009

    >>out in the real world, $500K doesn’t buy you a reasonable Human Resources manager Seriously? Where should I send my resume (sans any HR experience). Sounds like I'm perfect for a job at GM! And I won't even argue about the signing bonus.... BILL

  • Wsn Wsn on Jul 27, 2009
    windswords : July 24th, 2009 at 7:21 pm Wsn, there are over 2 million dead Cambodians, Laotians, and those killed by communist insurgencies in Thailand and Burma who would like to have a word with you (if they could). -------------------------------------------------- 1) The propaganda for the Vietnam War was all about containing Communism for the safety of Americans. The result is that no Americans are really hurt after losing the Vietnam War. 2) Those dead people are not killed by "Communism" per se. Around the world, there are hundreds of militant groups and governments killing innocent people in the name of religion, or Communism, or anti-terrorism. Whatever ideology used as a cover, the reality is about over-population and fighting for resources. 3) The death toll would have been much shorter, had the Americans not joining the war and killing half a million Vietnamese.
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)