By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. There’s a memorable scene in the movie “Jerry McGuire” (thanks to Director/Writer Cameron Crowe) when Tom Cruise (playing the sports agent Jerry McGuire) is trying to get through to Cuba Gooding Jr. (playing the egomaniacal NFL star Rod Tidwell) about the level of commitment it takes for him to work on the petulant star’s behalf:
“I am out here for you. You don't know what it's like to be me out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?”
No, the automobile industry isn’t the fanciful world of the movies. It is, however, at times a brutal, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week slog that demands so much of everyone involved that I can’t even begin to do justice to the effort that it takes to succeed, let alone stay in the game.
People outside this industry rarely get a glimpse of what that means, they see the endless succession of car shows and press launches and think that the business is one big romp through The Land of Bright Shiny Things, a rhythmic soiree punctuated by gobs of horsepower and glittering designer shapes.
Well, at times this industry is that, but that impression is very misleading. The reality is that the nitty-gritty of this business revolves around agonizing over excruciatingly pivotal decisions big and small that not only determine the essence of a machine but its relevance in the market and its profitability, which ultimately determines whether or not it’s considered a success or failure. And those decisions run the gamut from design and engineering details to the fundamental ability to manufacture and market.
That the automobile and the industry that has grown up around it is one of the most complicated endeavors on earth cannot be overstated. It involves absolutely everything you can possibly imagine, from fundamental fashion sense and design vision to competency in complex engineering principles and executions, and anything and everything in between.
And whatever a given automobile company comes up with in any given segment they choose to compete in has to not only meet endless safety regulations and government fuel-efficiency and emission mandates, it has to have enough appeal that consumers will actually want to pay serious money to acquire it.
And this is where that “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” quote comes in. This just in: It ain’t easy.
As I’ve said repeatedly, the True Believers – the people who love this automobile “thing” intensely and who give it their all, day-in and day-out no matter what they’re working on – are the people who make the difference in this business.
For instance if there’s a particular detail about the new Corvette that really makes you smile, a little nuance about the way the car looks or the way it performs that particularly captures your fancy, I can assure you that there is a True Believer behind it. As a matter of fact there are hundreds of True Believers who contributed mightily to the overall goodness of the new Corvette.
But it’s not just the Corvette, because there are thousands upon thousands of True Believers throughout this industry who make the difference every day. Pick any engineering feature or design detail that you like on your favorite car and there’s a True Believer behind it.
And I’m thankful that they’re still engaged, that they still believe in what they’re doing and that they still care, because if they didn’t the whole automotive “thing” would be about as exciting as rearranging your sock drawer.
That’s not to suggest that the industry is chock-full of True Believers who skip between engineering centers, factory floors and design studios singing to one and all that it is indeed a wonderful life, because that isn’t the case at all. Quiet confidence is the rule for the True Believers, and they bring it every day.
But, as in everything, there’s a darker side to contend with in this business as well.
In this case the darker side is made up of a strata of anti-True Believers at work in the industry who - whether it be due to a genuine lack of ability, misplaced ego, or both - do their absolute damnedest to screw things up. These people are the bane of the industry, the ones who end up derailing product programs or who just plain drop the ball with shocking regularity. It’s where the term “maliciously incompetent” finds its true meaning, and these players can and often do have a seriously detrimental effect on a car company’s health.
Speaking of egos, this business can also be a cornucopia of egomaniacal behavior – especially at the executive level – a veritable field day of self-importance, egregiously misappropriated gravitas and plain old rampant asshole-ism. In short, it’s just human nature and there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it.
As readers of my column know, there is plenty of that to go around in this business, with two of the most glaring examples of it at work at the top of two of the three car companies based here.
It continues to amaze me – although it shouldn’t by now - that no matter how much money or power some of these executives have, their woefully insular worlds can turn on perceived slights both real and imagined, and whether or not their egos have been assuaged enough to their liking. It’s truly pathetic, but there you have it.
Oh well, as incredible as it sounds I’m thankful for the practitioners on the darker side of the equation, too, because, after all, if they weren’t stomping through life lost in their delusional fog of self-aggrandizement, what fun would that be?
I wish everyone out there a nice Thanksgiving and I hope you can take the time to sincerely count your blessings.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.