By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Dan Akerson, the "Accidental Tourist" of a CEO who had no business being anywhere near the CEO's office at General Motors to begin with, is finally taking his leave from the company. But the brief flurry of tolling church bells around the city banging out the cadence of "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz suddenly grew silent when the ramifications of what "Captain Queeg" had wrought on his way out of the company came into focus.
The bottom line? Akerson has just royally screwed General Motors and he may have set the stage for a mass exodus of the company's True Believers all in one fell swoop.
We should have all seen it coming. After all, Selim Bingol, Akerson's bagman and credibility-challenged PR savant had been beating the drums for Akerson and Akerson's handpicked successor - Mary Barra - for months. The heretofore unannounced - but openly talked about among media types in the business for months (yeah, we know, this is the stuff you read AE for - WG) - "cozy relationship" that GM PR had developed with The Wall Street Journal had been paying huge dividends over the last twelve months. In article after article Akerson was portrayed as a savior and genius who was pulling a moribund and pathetically out-of-touch company in a woefully downtrodden industry up by its lapels by his sheer brilliance, bringing every bit of his telecom-acquired skill to bear to bring about fundamental and much-needed change at GM.
And it was all crap. Unmitigated bullshit of the first degree. And to make matters worse, it was PR manipulation of the most cynical kind. And the WSJ bought it all - hook, line and sinker. After all, that publication's maniacal, almost obscene desire for content - especially content that no one else had in the auto space - trumped every last shred of credibility and journalistic common sense. Though it was a complete and utter credibility disaster for the WSJ and its editors they clearly didn't care, and there the articles were for all to see. And after reading them the unenlightened wouldn't be shocked to find out that Akerson was a legitimate candidate for President of the United States, the praise was that ridiculous and syrupy.
But then several months ago, some interesting developments took place. Akerson stocked the board with a couple of new members favorably disposed to his antics. Then, there was a noticeable shift in tone to the stories in the WSJ and other publications, this time talking about Akerson as "visionary" and how he wanted his successor to be a change agent who would carry on his legacy, as pathetic as that sounded.
And the name Mary Barra emerged.
Barra, if you must know, was given the chief of Product Development title by Akerson even though that's not the job she performed. The ex-HR Queen was plucked from near obscurity by Akerson and thrust into the role and given the title because Akerson openly said to anyone who would listen, anyone could run product. Yes, he said that. Repeatedly, too. (Akerson applied the same sick logic when he appointed "Amway Bob" Ferguson - the GM lobbyist with no apparent credentials of any kind - to run Cadillac.) Well, in fact, the dirty little secret is that Barra never ran product. Her strength was her knowledge of the GM system, and when Mark Reuss and the True Believers in product development were ready to launch a finished product into the system to get built, Barra was given the task of taking that product and making sure it was executed in the most efficient way possible. But did she actually perform as the head of Product Development? It never happened. Not even close, in fact.
But then, things turned even darker, as if manipulating the media and manufacturing a false aura for a boorish, prickly little man with not one redeeming quality whatsoever weren't enough. No, not content to grease the skids for his whimsical pick - Mary Barra - to replace him as CEO in the safe confines of The Wall Street Journal and Automotive News, Akerson set about on an internal campaign to destroy any chance of a True Believer from running General Motors. His target? Mark Reuss.
As insiders in this industry know, Reuss is the one person at General Motors whom the True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development could count on. Focused, driven and with an innate sense of what the product should be, how it should feel and how it should perform, Reuss combined that engineering and product sensibility with a meaningful stint running GM's operations in Australia to present the complete package and the guy who, more than any other person, should have been running General Motors. And everyone inside and outside GM knew it too.
Mark Reuss had the unenviable task of keeping the True Believers focused every time Akerson went off half-cocked and made some idiotic statement to the media - which in the beginning of his Reign of Terror was almost every other week - revealing his relentless cluelessness about the business and insulting his own product people in the process. It was Reuss who peeled them off of the ceiling and got them back on track rejuvenated and refocused to produce the impressive product onslaught that you're seeing today from GM. Don't kid yourselves, folks. It was Mark Reuss, Ed Welburn and the rest of GM's True Believers who kept GM in the game, against all possible odds, not the least of which was the public humiliation of bankruptcy and the ongoing embarrassment of a CEO who not only had no business being in the job, but openly scorned the True Believers at every turn, dismissing them as "old school" and singularly responsible for what was fundamentally wrong with GM.
But as I said earlier and I need to reemphasize this point because it's central to this whole regime change, Akerson reserved a particular loathsome brand of disdain for Mark Reuss. To him, Reuss represented everything wrong with General Motors, because Akerson believed - in his inimitable style and with his stunning lack of knowledge about this business and how things actually get done intact - that Reuss was a threat. That if Reuss was allowed to thrive, unimpeded, then GM wouldn't be remade in Akerson's "vision" for the company, but instead GM would return to its hoary, out-of-touch ways and Akerson's legacy would be in ruins.
And Akerson's behavior toward Reuss has been despicable and indefensible, with the ex-Navy guy - an insult to every Navy man or woman out there, by the way - conducting himself like a immature jock and worse. Think of "Doug Niedemeyer" in Animal House and you get the picture. How so? (And yes, even more reason why you read AE - WG) Akerson would humiliate Reuss in meetings in front of his peers and behind his back in a juvenile display of asshole-ism that insiders are still shaking their heads at. And it got worse. Akerson even stooped as low as insulting Mark's father, Lloyd Reuss, the longtime GM stalwart who is now retired, behind his back. Hard to believe, right? Not if you knew Dan Akerson and saw the jerk in action.
Akerson's so-called "logic" at work here is indefensible as well. It's as if Akerson would rather remake GM in his likeness - a truly ugly thought indeed - by promoting bureaucratic functionaries like Mary Barra and a glorified bean counter who shares his skewed perspectives of the world - Dan Ammann - to lofty positions - than Do the Right Thing for the company. (I'm sure people will heap derision on me for not willingly anointing Mary Barra as someone deserving of the title. I am already wincing at the articles gushing drivel about the "car girl" getting her due and other such nonsense. I have nothing against Barra. I do, however, have everything against the willful, malicious manipulation of a succession plan that Akerson just pulled off. If Mary Barra was the most qualified individual walking the halls of GM I would wholeheartedly support the choice. But the simple fact is that she isn't.)
But then who are we kidding here? Dan Akerson never had the right thing for the company in mind when he was handed General Motors on a silver platter. Let's be clear, this is the guy who openly loathed the automobile industry and everyone in it. He hates cars and he hated the people who called themselves "car guys" or "car girls" even more. He viewed the industry as being full of "not smart" people who couldn't hold a candle to his beloved telecom bootlickers, and he rode a shockingly mediocre career in that industry to the top spot at GM, thanks to the serial incompetence of one of the most incompetent Boards of Directors operating in corporate America.
And there you have it.
GM's incredibly tone-deaf and relentlessly ill-equipped "Accidental Tourist" of a CEO is riding off into the sunset with cash in hand. And let's be clear here, it was all about the money for Captain Queeg and his merry band of carpetbaggers. Soon he will be ensconced back in Washington regaling his friends at parties about how he saved General Motors and that moribund backwater of an industry from itself.
A truly pathetic thought indeed, especially when you consider that he royally screwed GM's True Believers - the very people responsible for GM's optimistic performance of late - and the future of the company while he was at it.
To say that Dan Akerson was the wrong guy at the wrong time at the wrong car company is the understatement of this or any other year.
And the fact that this loathsome, unctuous prick of a man detonated a grenade inside GM on his way out by orchestrating a warped succession plan devoid of rhyme or reason is one of the most blatant, unconscionable acts of derision that this industry has ever witnessed.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.