July 18, 2012
The last thing on GM’s “to do” list could be the most important symbol of its long-term survival.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 7/16, 11:30 a.m.) Detroit. Writing in this past Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, John Gallagher reported on the fact that auto-centric cities around the world have elaborate auto museums built by their respective resident automakers, and wondered if Detroit could learn anything from it. I remain unconvinced that the current leadership of the city of Detroit and its running embarrassment of a city council can learn anything about anything, but I’ve brought up the glaring lack of a proper museum dedicated to the history of General Motors before, and now is as good a time as any to discuss it again.
To give a brief rundown on just a few of the museums that exist in the world today, Volkswagen has Autostadt in its hometown of Wolfsburg, a theme park devoted to everything VW, and you can even take delivery of a car while you’re at it. Audi, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz have stunning museums awash in the history of their respective brands. Ford is affiliated with one of the most important historical museums in the world, and there’s even a modest museum dedicated to the product history of Chrysler in Auburn Hills.
But GM? The No. 1 or No. 2 automaker in the world (depending on what day it is) has an 81,000-square-foot warehouse in Sterling Heights, Michigan, called the GM Heritage Center where it keeps a smattering of its most important cars. And it’s not even open to the public on a regular basis.
Now granted, the very last thing on CEO Dan Akerson’s “to do” list is funding a museum for General Motors, so the likelihood of GM spending $100 million on a museum is, well, it is just nevergonnahappen. Let me restate that - a museum is in no way, shape or form even remotely approaching Akerson’s radar screen.
After all, his and his colleagues’ Priority No. 1 is to get out from under the “Government Motors” moniker that has shackled GM ever since the government-orchestrated bankruptcy. That is sure to happen after the presidential election when the government sells its stake in the company, no matter who wins, but make no mistake, there’s still lingering resentment out in the real world over how that entire process went down that will haunt GM for a long time to come. (Funny, but there’s no lingering animosity directed toward Fiat-Chrysler after Chrysler was basically gifted to Fiat with huge amounts of taxpayer money in play. When you’re too big to fail like GM was, different rules apply, or maybe it was the fact that Chrysler crashed and burned so many times before that people didn’t even bother to notice.)
But Akerson & Co.’s problems don’t end there. Armed with arguably the best product lineup in their history, GM’s divisions aren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Yes, there are certainly pockets of notable sales success, but overall the performance is tepid, especially in the face of renewed competitiveness from Toyota, Nissan and even Honda. Not to mention, of course, the continuing onslaught from the Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia.
And that’s not all. GM is reeling from the dramatic downturn in Europe, like every automaker on the planet that does business there. And in GM’s case, since it was already operating at a deficit to begin with because of the mountain of problems at Opel, the situation over there is dire.
So the reality for Akerson and his troops is that they’re operating in a 24/7, all-hands-on-deck frenzy, developing competitive products, putting out fires, trying to move the sales needle, cutting costs, trying to maintain momentum in China, trying to grow business in new markets, etc., all the while waiting impatiently to get out from under the tainted moniker that no one wants to hear about anymore down at the RenCen.
But, and this is a very big “but,” despite this swirling maelstrom of problems, issues, dire warnings and challenges, the fact that GM doesn’t have a proper museum is bordering on the criminal.
How can this be, exactly? Especially when this industrial giant utterly dominated the auto business for an unprecedented 30-year stretch (1955-1980). How is it that one of the icons of the modern industrial age couldn’t have mustered the proper funding at some point in its illustrious run to accomplish this?
Is it because the financial types at the top didn’t really care enough about cars to muster the energy to give a damn? Yes, that certainly has a lot to do with it. After all, when you view cars and trucks as mere entries on a ledger, why would you need a museum?
Or maybe it’s due to the fact that GM has always operated within a weird dichotomy where the product-oriented people were and still are responsible for the ultimate success of the company, while the financial types were responsible for creatively moving the money around to maximize shareholder value. When it comes right down to it, why would the finance types want a museum dedicated to the car guys’ success?
Be that as it may, Dan Akerson sees his legacy as the man who “fixed” General Motors, ensuring its competitiveness well into the 21st Century. Or he certainly would like it to be that anyway.
But here’s the thing: There’s no real “there” there. That kind of “legacy” is akin to constructing a museum dedicated to the glory days of the financial types. No one would come and no one would care. The fact of the matter is that the history of General Motors, and the legacies of the great people who did such brilliant work on the company’s behalf deserves better.
Are GM’s automotive achievements any less important or significant than those of Mercedes or Porsche or BMW? Or even Ford or Chrysler? No. Yet those manufacturers each have a place that celebrates and honors their respective histories. Are some of these museums over the top? Absolutely. But these manufacturers rightly see these kinds of structures as part of their continued brand building. And they’re absolutely right to think that way.
I get that under Dan Akerson GM is more about cost cutting than brand building, and for the very short term maybe he’s right. But there’s a bigger long-term issue at stake here, and if Akerson wants his legacy to be one of other than “the guy who was there after GM emerged from bankruptcy,” then maybe he ought to heed history, or at least acknowledge its importance to the company and put plans in motion to build a proper museum to showcase GM’s glorious past, ever-changing present and promising future.
Way back when, Lee Iacocca committed the funding necessary to build a brand-new headquarters and technical complex and move Chrysler lock, stock and barrel out of Highland Park north to Auburn Hills here in southeast Michigan, and It turned out to be a visionary move. Yes, he did it when Chrysler’s profits were running high but at least he did it. And it was such a significant move for the future of the company that I view it as the most important legacy of Iacocca’s tenure at Chrysler.
GM needs to build an enduring structure where people can go and see some of the most significant automotive and transportation milestones of the 20th century. A place where dynamic and dramatic history lives, with the present and future residing in harmony as well.
And it just might have the beneficial side effect of convincing people that GM is so much more than a faceless enterprise, an iconic American company filled with colorful stories, True Believers, imaginative solutions and flat-out creativity that once dominated the business and set the standard for future generations.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.