Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How GM Lost its Way by Paul Ingrassia

Decades of dumb decisions helped send General Motors to a bankruptcy court yesterday, but one stands out.
The year was 1998, and the United Auto Workers was striking at two factories in Flint, Mich., that made components critical to every GM assembly plant in the country. The union was defending production quotas that workers could fill in five or six hours, after which they would get overtime pay or just, you know, go home.
Most strikes are forbidden during the life of a labor contract, so to provide legal cover the union started filing grievances. GM lawyers contended the walkouts violated the contract anyway and drafted a lawsuit -- the first by the company against the UAW in more than 60 years. But GM's labor-relations department freaked out because the lawsuit would antagonize the union.
Chad Crowe
Just think about that. The union had shut down virtually all of GM, costing the company and its shareholders billions of dollars, and yet the company's labor negotiators were afraid of giving offense. After heated internal arguments, the suit was filed and GM seemed on the verge of winning. But the company settled just before the judge ruled.
UAW members marched victoriously through downtown Flint. GM executives who advocated a tougher stand got pushed out of the company.
The picture of a heedless union and a feckless management says a lot about what went wrong at GM. There were many more mistakes, of course -- look-alike cars, lapses in quality, misguided acquisitions, and betting on big SUVs just before gas prices soared. They were all born of a uniquely insular corporate culture.
The GM bailout probably will cost close to $100 billion, counting money from the governments of the U.S., Canada and Germany. On paper, the new company should emerge from Chapter 11 fully able to compete in the brutally competitive auto industry. Whether it will actually prosper is far less certain, but some things are beyond dispute. Bankruptcy didn't have to happen and the fact that it did happen is incredibly sad given GM's many contributions to American society and culture.
General Motors invented the modern corporation by developing the concept of giving operating executives power and responsibility to run far-flung operations subject to central financial control. While Henry Ford invented mass manufacturing, GM's long-time president and chairman of the board, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., developed mass marketing: a "car for every purse and purpose," as he put it in the company's 1924 annual report. This meant a hierarchy of brands ranging from practical Chevrolets to prestigious Cadillacs. GM's industrial might helped win a world war and made America rich in its aftermath.
For half a century, between the 1920s and the 1970s, GM seemed to have an instinctive feel for what Americans wanted before consumers themselves even knew it. Chrome, tail fins, muscle cars and even the first catalytic converters that let cars run on lead-free gasoline were developed at GM.
But the company signed generous labor deals during the 1970s, including the right to retire after 30 years with full pension and benefits, partly because it believed the contracts would cripple its smaller competitors, Ford and Chrysler. Then along came Honda, Nissan and Toyota, which didn't have to deal with labor contracts at all. That was the beginning of the agonizing decline.
This fate could have been avoided with better foresight and less hubris, but by 18 months ago bankruptcy was inevitable. GM's U.S. market share had declined to 22% from 52% in the early 1960s. There were too many brands, too much debt, a cumbersome union contract as big as a phone book, and an enormous dealer network built for the glory years of yesterday instead of the market share of today.
The question for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama was whether to stand by and watch, or instead to use the public purse to shape the bankruptcies of both Chrysler and GM to mitigate the damage to a shaky U.S. economy. They intervened, which was the unpleasant but correct decision.
By and large, Mr. Obama's automotive task force has done its job pretty well, forcing the companies and the UAW to make difficult decisions that they should have made themselves long ago. GM will shed four of its eight U.S. brands -- Saab, Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer -- thousands of dealers, 11 factories, and much of its debt. It is no small irony that a Democratic administration brought in a bunch of private-equity types to impose rational management on big business.
That said, a couple of aspects of the GM and Chrysler bailouts could come back to haunt U.S. taxpayers and the Obama administration.
The company that controls Chrysler, Italy's Fiat, is getting a special government incentive -- a potential increase in its Chrysler ownership stake -- to build a small car in America that will get 40 miles per gallon. General Motors made a similar decision to build a high-mileage small car in the U.S. of its own accord, but certainly with an eye toward current political "realities."
Both moves fit the green agenda of Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats. They're also egregious examples of mission creep. GM and Chrysler should get just one marching order from the government: Earn enough money so taxpayers will recover as much as their investment as possible. If the new small cars flop because gas prices drop, the result will be more losses and, potentially, Bailout II.
The other questionable call is the government's big ownership stake in both companies -- 60% of General Motors and a much smaller share of Chrysler. The rationale is reasonable. The government is providing the $50 billion of financing needed to restructure GM so taxpayers might as well get something for their money. But this relegates unsecured lenders to the back of the line behind the government and the union. More worrisome, it invokes the question famously asked before the U.S. invasion of Iraq: You can go in, but can you get out?
The answer will depend on the success of GM, which in turn will hinge on whether the new company can cast off the culture of the old one. One encouraging sign is that, thanks to the labor contract amendments imposed by the Treasury's task force, UAW members will be required to work 40 hours a week before getting overtime pay. Less encouraging is that workers still will be allowed six unexcused absences before being fired. It doesn't take that many at a Honda plant.
As for management, not long ago a group of executives was reviewing a prototype new Buick model, about the size of a BMW 3 Series, at GM's design studios. The sporty styling had been developed in China for sale both there and in the U.S. But the company's cautious product planners suggested conducting customer clinics to gauge reaction to the design and possibly changing both the front and back end. It would have delayed the project and cost tens of millions of dollars.
CEO Fritz Henderson wisely said no. But the very next day the product planners were charging ahead with their clinic plans anyway, just in case the boss wanted to see the results of their research. Maybe the new Buick should be named the CYA. Neither billions in losses nor the brink of bankruptcy, it seems, have been enough to change many traditional ways of doing things at GM.
Heaven only knows what will be enough. But a company with a cautious, slow-moving management and a union committed to defending ridiculous work rules won't have a chance of succeeding. Perhaps everyone remaining at the new GM will realize that. The rest of us can only hope for the best.

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