By on February 7, 2013

Legs of RenCen executives must be covered with black and blue marks from kicking themselves daily for not unloading Opel when the German government offered to take the sick patient off GM’s hands. A deal, financed with $6 billion courtesy of German tax payers and a little petty cash from Russian bankers would have given GM a little money and an immediate end of the huge losses at Opel. Frankly, nobody in Germany had much hope for an Opel under Magna and the Russians either, it was seen as a hospice where to wheel the sick patient until it dies in silence, a la Saab.

At the last minute, GM changed its mind. Who made the ill-fated decision? Was Akerson for keeping Opel, or for getting rid of it?

In 2011, Reuters reported that it was most of GM’s board, with the notable exception of  GM CEO Dan Akerson and another unnamed  person.  In Summer of 2011, Reuters wrote:

“Akerson was one of only two GM board directors who voted against keeping Opel in late 2009, believing Europe was a market of national champion automakers — VW in Germany, Fiat in Italy and Renault in France — and pan-European luxury brands like BMW and Daimler AG’s Mercedes, a person familiar with Akerson’s thinking said. Opel is neither and Akerson believed it would be a long, uphill battle to fix it.”

The matter is more complex than simple chauvinism, and Opel is seen as a national, albeit sick, champion in Germany, but the long uphill, or make that downhill battle remains.

A year later, when the New York Times looked into the matter, the story had changed.  Instead of two people  who had voted for unloading Opel, there were two for keeping it: Akerson and Steve Girsky.  Writes the Times:

“G.M. nearly sold Opel three years ago before its reconstituted board decided to keep the business because of its integral role in the company’s global product programs. Two of the directors who championed the decision to retain Opel were Mr. Akerson and Stephen J. Girsky, the board’s vice chairman.

Now both are admitting that a turnaround in Europe has been far tougher than anticipated.”

The stories are diametrically opposed.  In 2011, a whole board allegedly wanted to keep Opel, but Akerson and someone else were against. A year later, Akerson, along with Girksy,  were said to have been champions of keeping Opel American.

The reporters of both stories are the best in the business. On the Reuters side, Ben Klayman has been an important part of Reuters’ Detroit-based auto team. On the New York Times side is Bill Vlasic, the NYT’s best auto industry reporter and author of Once Upon a Car, the account of the recent “fall and resurrection” of the Detroit car manufacturers.  Both reporters stick to their story. The Vlasic  story reflects the party line. However, the Klayman story is based on solid sources, and Klayman never received a call from GM, telling him the story was wrong, something GM usually is not shy to do.

Now there is one item that had changed: When the board voted to keep Opel, Akerson was a simple board member. He  became CEO in late 2010, and it looks better is he’s firmly behind Opel.

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13 Comments on “A Tale Of Two Akersons: Was He For Keeping Opel, Or Was He Against?...”

  • avatar

    The issue of keeping or not keeping Opel is being discussed in this and other forums, but as I have already posted it is somewhat irrelevant. For GM the outcome is clear and Opel will be kept within the family as long as GM wants to be a global player and therefore maintain a presence in Europe, which otherwise would take many years to solidify in terms of volume with a “just arrived” brand such as Chevrolet. There is no hurry and as it has been already said by GM, everyone knows that Opel will not make money in the short term – as it is the case with most European mainstream brands- but over the medium/long term, once the European organization is restructured and capacity adjusted to demand- which will be done – Opel will be profitable and GM will sustain a decent presence in a market which still has some weight in the global car universe.

    • 0 avatar

      Good luck. The European market will deteriorate on a massive scale, simply due to demographics. I did the studies for Volkswagen in the late 90s, and they are eyewatering. What you see now is the beginning of a trend which will accelerate. The established players will fight with teeth and nails for the remaining customers. There is no way a volume player can survive on the European market alone.

      My prediction is that Opel will be taken bankrupt in a few year.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree and as a former insider, its difficult to not agree with your assessments. Ghosn’s public comments echoed this eventuality, I suspect the trend will eventually hit the US/Canada.

    • 0 avatar

      Chasing volume seems like an outdated and underinformed tactic. The (probably) coming huge recession in Europe caused by currency debasement by the ECB and the demographic issues explained by BS make Europe a warzone that any informed car company would be cutting ties to if possible (see the expansion that the big german brands are making in BRIC, the only places automakers can really chase growth now). GM should have dumped Opel in 2009, they’d be doing much better right now if they had.

  • avatar

    How much will it cost GM to create, or buy, the engineering for mid-size cars like the Malibu? Even before bankruptcy, GM had pruned US engineering staff. You can’t be a serious player without a credible ‘mid-size’ or Vectra/Fusion/Camry/Accord and a credible Civic/Focus/Corolla/Golf. Will GM Korea or GMNA do that, or will GM ‘buy’ that?

    I have a soft spot for Opel–I liked Mantas.

    More interesting to stockholders is the decision to “partner” with Peugeot. Perhaps GM learned things from it’s expensive Fiat experience that I, as a non-executive, simply cannot appreciate. Then again, perhaps Peugeot will be like a bad French cheese–stinky and expensive….

  • avatar

    It serves Akerson at the moment to have both opposed stories out in the wild. Now he can champion how he was right in opposing its rescue when it goes BK, or should the tide turn he can proclaim how he knew it could be saved should things turn around. Or maybe he was just “for it before he was against it.”

  • avatar

    Well, Whitacre was the guy in charge, and after insulting Angela Merkel, what was he going to do? The way Whitacre ran SBC, the board members’ opinions were solicited, but unless it was unanimous, Whitacre made the final decisions. I can’t imagine him operating differently at GM.

  • avatar

    Who knows the machinations of the GM mind? Just a few weeks ago GM (Holden) was saying that the VF Commodore (Chevy SS) will be the last Commodore. Now Mr Devereux has stated at the launch of the “last” Commodore that it won’t the last Commodore! He alluded to the fact that the Commodore namplate will continue, attached to some wimpy FWD Buick/Chevrolet/Opel, probaly the Impala Way to kill a car! The only way they’ll save the Commodre is to allow the guru’s at Holden to gas axe a AWD/RWD into the car and slot a decent motor under the hood.If that doesn’t happen, just keep the Impala nameplate, don’t sully the memories. I’m sure you guys got uptight when the Monaro morphed into the Pontiac GTO. Trying to cash in on past memories and loyaties just don’t work.

  • avatar

    Thanks Bertell for your memory and ability to dig these stories up! In this ever faster going world memory is undervalued. These stories make things more clear to people who are less “in the business”

    Digging deeper on your inside info: How much of Opel’s costs are actually being made solely by Opel? Is it possible to put engineering costs mostly on Opel, while being used throughout the whole company?
    Because “getting stuff done” with German government officials is easier by portraying Opel as the German patient. Putting people on the streets by closing factories puts a lot of pressure on governments and you can’t immediately do this if all his been well throughout the years.
    Opel Delta platform is the basis for the Chevrolet Cruze. Opel Epsilon platform underpins the Chevy Malibu. The Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac’s 2011 XTS are based on newer versions of the Epsilon.

    The reason I’m stating this is because Ford and Mazda had quite an intimate relationship in the past. With Ford using the Mazda G platform and dropping the Zetec design in favor of Mazda’s MZR design.

    Maybe I should stop smoking tea leaves, but it’s a thought that came to my mind after a couple of years of bad stories on Opel. It could also be that there is a more clear distinction between Opel cars and Opel engineering that I’m not aware of.

  • avatar

    Opel (along with GM Korea) seems to still be were the majority of non-Truck engineering is being done. What was GM supposed to do if that “engineering division” (Opel) suddenly went away?

    • 0 avatar

      Well to your point, they would be screwed. Which is why throughout the bailout drama and despite the Opel sale deals, the division remained firmly in the hands of RenCen.

      On another point GM is playing a dangerous game IMO allowing Daewoo and Opel to dominate/dictate its car offerings. I like and respect GM trucks but that’s not what I have consistently bought. I have generally bought GM car products used and new from 1997 to now, but I don’t see a need to buy them in the future. If I want German overengineering, I have VW/Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. If I want Korean I have Hyundai/Kia. You could make a fiscal argument about GM being the ‘value’ brand vs those other marques but none of GM’s offerings are exactly cheap compared to their rivals. Hopefully someone, someday, will bring sense to that company.

      • 0 avatar

        I know that “buy American” and “brand loyalty” seem to be outdated, out molded concepts, but what if GM decieded to bring all engineering to the states and try to sell the cars from that angle? “Engineered in the USA.” Seems stronger than “Chevy Runs Deep” or “The New Class of World Class”.

  • avatar

    I hate to do it but let’s give GM the benefit of the doubt here, maybe it is an accounting issue, maybe a union issue, who knows but they have smart people at GM how many ??? No idea, but maybe the need the Opel to do the hard lifting of engeering the cars for the us and else w,here and they have to swallow the bad sales in Europe to have. That, if they dumped Opel what was the back up plan when gas goes up to 4.25 a gallon and people downsized out of pickups and S uV’ s they do not need , maybe keeping Opel was the best decision they had at the time. And no I do not own any GM product unless you count my Saab , I am more in the they have nothing that excites me to part with my cash dept.

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