General Motors Zombie Watch 18: Hire Buickman
Back in the day, GM really pissed me off. As the American automaker continued its inexorable slide into bankruptcy, executives, analysts, journalists, loyalists and camp followers scoffed at the prospect of disaster. Their scorn fueled my anger or, as Angus Mackenzie would have it, pompous indignation. When the feds bailed-out and then nationalized GM, the company’s refusal to overhaul (keelhaul?) its executive “talent” kept my ire alive. A few months and $50b-plus dollars later and I’m rapidly approaching the point where I couldn’t give a NSFW. How many times can you sing the chorus of “Where have all the flowers gone?” without saying FTS and cranking-up the MC5? Before I abandon this pursuit entirely, here’s a quick rant about GM’s inability to realize American’s favorite mantra: hope and change.
In the run-up to nationalization, critics of GM’s nationalization focused on the possibility that the feds would force “Government Motors” to produce “Nancy Pelosi-mobiles.” GM’s would lose its ability to make, market and sell profitable (i.e. gas guzzling) products. Wrong answer.
GM is under no more regulatory pressure than any other automaker in the American market. Besides, there are enough loopholes in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to keep a thousand macrame artists knitting for a thousand years. More to the point, history tells us that GM is fully capable of making an entire range of uncompetitive products with or without the government’s “help.”
Other critics sounded the alarm re: political interference in New GM’s manufacturing and retail choices. Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank set the standard in that regard; ringing-up GM CEO Fritz Henderson and arranging a stay of execution for a GM parts distribution facility in Frank’s district.
Since then, we’ve heard nothing about political tampering with factory fade-outs. The masters of accommodation strike again! Of course, this “peace at any price” comes at a price: more of your tax money. The Delphi’s “hidden” bailout and the Department of Energy’s $10 billion GM retooling loan are only the most recent and prominent examples.
Meanwhile, the shit-canned GM dealers’ “revolt” has gone underground. GM and the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) are holding secret negotiations on how to raid the public purse. In time, NADA’s umbrella dwellers will hive-off several billion dollars from government coffers for these aggrieved dealers.
So, once again, GM is doing what it does best: maintain the status quo.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their executive ranks. While one member of the old guard has finally departed, the same bozos who ran GM into the ground are running it into the ground again. Still. And here’s where the feds have proven most helpful.
In September, someone at or around GM decided that CFO Ray Young was not the man for the job. Young’s sword-falling cash-out routine provided the perfect opportunity for GM CEO Fritz Henderson’s newly formed executive committee to find . . . wait for it . . . an outsider! Never mind that each of the nine-member committee boasts an average of 29 years of service at GM. Viva la revolution!
Yes, well, as a $50 billion TARP recipient, GM’s executive compensation is now subject to federal diktat. The Wall Street Journal [sub] reports that “GM executives recently met with the Treasury’s pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, and left with the understanding that the company would be able to offer [a new CFO] a significant amount of stock but no more than a $1 million annual salary.” A million bucks p.a. and stock in a company that’s not publicly traded, and may never be? Yeah, that’ll work.
Actually, it will. Truth be told, GM wants to fill its executive ranks with outsiders about as much as the U.S. military wants to promote openly gay commanders. Probably less.
In recent board meetings, Mr. Henderson has been pressed by directors on the issue of hiring outsiders, according to people familiar with the meetings. Mr. Henderson has said he is worried that Treasury’s pay caps will discourage qualified outsiders. He has also said GM has a wealth of internal talent to pull from.
GM and the United States government are a match made in heaven—at least for their leaders. Of course, the symbiotic nature of the not-so-dynamic duo means that GM is about as likely to pay down its debt as Uncle Sam. But let’s not go there. It’s way too depressing.
Instead, let’s ignore GM’s inevitable date with dissolution and offer the American automaker one more shot at a genuine turnaround. For there is a way for Fritz and Co. to send a message to their benefactors that they are willing to create real change within their organization and, possibly, do so: hire Buickman to run Buick.
Jim Dollinger is uniquely qualified to run Buick. He knows Buick’s products, dealers and customers. He knows what GM has to do—and not do—to reinvigorate Buick as the all-American “elegance” brand. He’s got honesty, integrity, vision, talent, drive, determination and good old-fashioned moxie. Buickman would take that million bucks and that [literally] fantastic stock option plan in a New York minute. Not because he needs the money. Because he believes.
Hiring Buickman—the ultimate outside—would send a clear message to GM insiders that their days are numbered. Yes, they’d fight Jimbo tooth and nail. But even if Henderson failed to ensure sufficient organizational cooperation (the rat bastard), Buickman would triumph. Free from GM’s code of omerta, the perpetual “loose cannon” could “out” the defenders of the status quo.
And there you have it: the one way General Motors could re-engage my interest. It’s left field stuff alright, but I’m tired of GM Groundhog Day. Without anything even remotely resembling real change at the top, there is no hope for a happy ending. Not for GM’s employees, customers or taxpaying patrons. Dollinger or die. That’s my final offer.
More by Robert Farago
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