November 21, 2012
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 11/19, 4:00 p.m.) Detroit. Well, it's that time of the season with another year having gone by at a blistering pace, and traditionally it's time to take stock and give thanks for all of our bounties and good fortune, even if it's just the fact that we're still walking around unaided or breathing freely. We all certainly have plenty to be thankful for, but then again I'm still talking about the auto industry this week, so there's bound to to be a different spin on the whole idea of being thankful. And for those of you expecting a touchy-feely Hallmark type of column, well, you know that's notgonnahappen.
For instance the True Believers at Ford have to be thrilled that Alan Mulally is staying on for a couple of more years, and they're probably giving thanks on a daily basis for it. It's not that there isn't a terrific new management team coming into focus led by the talented Mark Fields, there is, and because of it the future is looking very bright for Ford. It's that after six years at Ford, and despite all the hype and the endless positive stories written about Mulally, he is very much the guy he is, one who remains true to self and to his core beliefs. His unwavering demeanor and real-time focus have not only reinvigorated Ford, they in turn have reinvigorated William Clay Ford Jr. and the emerging top brass at the company. It's no wonder that collectively Ford is thankful that the Mulally era is lasting a little longer.
But when you consider the state of the rest of the industry in this town the idea of being "thankful" takes on different meanings, and then some.
Take for instance the Two General Motors, the corporate entity that lives hard by the Detroit River. When I talk about the Two General Motors, I'm referring to a company that is split in two by the clear demarcation between CEO Dan Akerson along with his loyalists on the GM Board of Directors, and the rest of the company made up of the True Believers hard at work keeping GM in the game, product-wise.
The difference between the aura of focused enthusiasm at Ford led by the dynamic Mulally and the ongoing paranoia at GM created by CEO Dan Akerson is stark, and one filled with intense loathing. And for that reason alone, being thankful takes on an entirely different connotation for the True Believers at GM. Instead of being able to bask in the warm glow of a leader who cares, one highly regarded by his peers in the industry and by corporate America, the True Believers in the midst of it at GM exist in a tentative netherworld filled with foreboding. And their idea of being "thankful" is limited to the fact that their leader, aka "Captain Queeg," hasn't thrown them under the bus to the media as of late, while accusing them of doing mediocre work and a kaleidoscope of trumped-up transgressions that revolve around being uncompetitive.
The rest of the industry's executives should give a rousing tip of the hat to Akerson, because Akerson is so ill-equipped for his role, so caustic to GM's employees, so relentlessly out of step with the True Believers holding GM together that he can't help but make every other auto company executive look positively regal.
Remember, Akerson is the guy who reminds anyone who will listen that he finds this entire industry to be a relentless joke and mere child's play compared to the weightier, go-go issues that his favored telecom industry faces on a daily basis and on a much grander scale as well, by his estimation. He hates cars, hates the car business, thinks anyone can be a product guru (even him) and he can't wait to reimagine GM in his own likeness so he can get the hell out of here and go do something worthwhile with his life.
At the end of the day the True Believers at GM unfortunately can only take solace and be thankful for the fact that Akerson is considered to be a walking, talking example of how it's not done. Even Sergio Marchionne looks truly blessed in the shadow of "Captain Queeg."
And yes, there are even reasons to be thankful for The Great Sergio too. Let's take, for example, the certain members of the media whose slavish devotion to everything Sergio -- with nary a discouraging word to be found -- allows them to phone it in for weeks on end as they take Sergio's orchestrated media manipulation with an air of "thank you, sir, may I have another?" No wonder they're thankful, because without Sergio, what would the media do? I mean, would they really bother to do more than make a few phone calls and talk to Olivier "I'm a genius just ask me" Francois about marketing?
But maybe the key-strokers in the media are on to something. Maybe we should all be thankful because without The Great Sergio's brilliance how would this industry function? After all, seeing as his vision for the industry at large is the only one that should be taken seriously -- by his own estimation of course -- why should we bother listening to anyone else? Sergio tells this industry how it was, how it is and how it should be, even if it means pounding the table and recommending blatant collusion amongst European automakers in order to save his espresso-fueled, sweater-sporting ass.
And the Fiat-Chrysler dealers are absolutely thrilled with Sergio, but then again they're all just happy to be alive, so they can direct their thanks to Marchionne if it makes them feel better. But Sergio, his posse and the dealers should mostly just be thankful that the True Believers out in Auburn Hills keep their heads down and do damn fine work in spite of it all, because they're the real reason that Fiat-Chrysler is on the comeback trail.
And the industry as a whole should be thankful that the Korean business cultural mindset allowed Hyundai/KIA to get ahead of themselves -- yet again -- blaming fudged fuel economy numbers on "procedural errors," when everyone in the business knew damn well that they were flat-out guilty of cooking them. The Hyundai/KIA auto executive mindset is so hell bent on establishing a target and then meeting it, that rather than admitting that they didn't hit it they decided that they would just carry on as if they did, with no one the wiser. Busted. Yes, the entire industry is thankful that the Korean automakers are so predictable and relentlessly disingenuous, even if it's over the majority of consumers' heads as to why that is.
And Toyota should be thankful that its own cultural blindness didn't destroy the company. Honda should be thankful that it's even in the game, BMW and Mercedes should be thankful that their brands still mean something to people, because if these companies keep dueling each other with old-school luxury sales wars they're going to watch Audi blow right by them in the market.
VW should be thankful that the "Piech Miracle" seems to be rolling along nicely, piling up profits like cord wood. Porsche should be thankful that its "we can imbue the Porsche mystique in any segment we choose to compete in" is still working handsomely, at least for now. And Ferrari? As I said last week, Ferrari is teetering on the edge of becoming a caricature of itself, the Bernie Ecclestone of the high-performance luxury car market, chasing every last dollar from every new market, integrity be damned. I'm not sure they should be thankful for anything, because it looks like they will eventually blow that impeccable brand image at any moment in a series of Ferrari-themed shopping malls somewhere.
That's the High-Octane Truth for this week, and we hope you all have a nice Thanksgiving in your neck of the woods.
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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