October 10, 2012
GM goes long, to where is anyone’s guess.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 10/9, 5:15 p.m.) Detroit. CEO Dan Akerson is hell-bent on remaking General Motors in his own image – or at least the image he fancies himself to be – and his latest move confirms that. GM has announced that it has appointed its chief lobbyist to the newly created post of vice president of global Cadillac. Robert Ferguson, 53, an AT&T veteran brought to GM in 2010 by Ed Whitacre, “will be responsible for sales, marketing and retail strategies for Cadillac in markets around the world,” according to GM.
Let me repeat that: GM has announced that it has appointed its chief lobbyist to the newly created post of vice president of global Cadillac. Not an old-school divisional role with profit and loss responsibility in the idiom of GM’s heyday, but nonetheless Ferguson will be responsible for projecting the Cadillac luxury brand around the world.
By now readers of this website know that I have a particular problem – actually several, to put a finer point on it – with the set of credentials that Mr. Akerson brings to bear upon his role as CEO of one of the largest manufacturing concerns in the world. And try as I might, this column simply cannot be about Mr. Ferguson, even though by all accounts he’s a whip-smart, earnest guy who has every intention of doing an excellent job in his new role. (I will refrain from delineating Mr. Ferguson’s background here, as there are enough stories floating around the Internet about his previous telecom career highlights before he got to GM.)
Let’s face it, GM has Cadillac and Chevrolet. Yes, Buick has its primary role in China and GMC has its place in North America but make no mistake, the future of GM lies in the global success of Cadillac and Chevrolet.
So the real question is why?
Why on earth would Dan Akerson pluck a chief lobbyist from obscurity and drop him in one of the most pivotal product and brand roles in the company? Why? Where is the car experience? Where is the experience in luxury brand wrangling?
Ferguson, insists that he’s up to the task, saying in a GM press release, "I know how to run a sales organization and to work in a complex, engineering-driven organization. I'm more of a business person than a political person." Uh-huh, that’s fine but really, what else was he going to say? That he kinda-sorta likes cars and he kinda-sorta likes the business and that he’ll give it a whirl?
When Dan Akerson’s brainstorms take hold, it’s best not to ask why, apparently.
Don Butler, the U.S. vice president of marketing for Cadillac, and who will now report to Ferguson, was completely ignored in all of this. Why? Because he knew too damn much about Cadillac and its current tentative standing in the luxury market, and what it would need to succeed in the most cutthroat segment in the global car market? Apparently so, because I’ve talked to Don Butler and he definitely had a command of what Cadillac is and what it needed to be.
Akerson added this chestnut: "Bob is a proven leader with vision and a will to win at this critical time for Cadillac. He brings a deep business and marketing background that has been marked by delivering results at every stop and under every circumstance."
Ah, yes, the will to win. This is the same Dan Akerson who dismissed Bill Ford’s invitation to coffee or lunch when he assumed the reins of GM because Ford represented the competition. “Why would I do that?” Akerson said while rebuffing Ford’s courteous and neighborly invitation. Why indeed. (And, I would add, why bother attempting to gain even a feeble understanding of what makes this business tick when you know it all already?)
But this is what it’s all about when it comes right down to it, isn’t it? This is the full Dan Akerson, the self-appointed “smartest guy in the room” reiterating again for all who care to watch and listen that everything that has happened in this business before he arrived was inconsequential and irrelevant. And every person of note who toiled before him in this swirling automotive maelstrom was an underperformer who didn’t know what they were talking about and who did a piss-poor job on top of it.
For a Navy man, Akerson’s calculated disdain of history is frightening and an embarrassment. But for a guy with his hands on the tiller of General Motors, it’s a train wreck of unimaginable proportion just waiting to happen. (For the record the last person espousing this kind of logic was none other than John Smale, the P&G prophet who damn near ran the company right into the ground under the guise that savvy brand management could even sell inferior products, otherwise known as GM’s “You can sell shit as Shinola!” Reign of Terror.)
How else can you possibly interpret Akerson’s latest move? And how else can this be anything but a heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good for the future of General Motors?
But then again all of this is consistent with Akerson’s MO to date. Here is a guy who has made no bones about the fact that he loathes his own product people, dismissing them as self-righteous lightweights who bring little substance to the table. Hell, anybody could run product, Akerson has been heard to say. Just as anyone could run a global luxury brand, come to think about it, at least when you bring that kind of “logic” to the proceedings, right Dan?
Yes, Akerson is hell-bent on remaking GM in his image. But which image is that, exactly? The blunderbuss-wielding, “my way or the highway” scorched earth-policy CEO who has nothing but disdain for anyone who dares challenge him on the facts, or even better, reality?
Or the “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO who’s making it up as he goes along?
Either way, GM loses.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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