By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Editor’s Note: Peter gets many emails from people in this business each week, and every once in a while he feels compelled to respond to the queries and comments more directly so that the Autoextremist readers can get a glimpse of Peter’s up-to-the moment thinking on a variety of topics. This is one of those weeks, and thus, the “Doctor” is in. –WG
Q: What do you think of Mary Barra’s renewed push on changing GM’s culture? Don’t you think that’s pretty much of a fool’s errand at this point? –M.A., Northville, Michigan.
The GM CEO has been on a PR offensive of late, thanks to the tutelage of PR Chief Tony Cervone and other advisers. With appearances on the CBS program “Sunday Morning” last weekend and Forbes Media’s “Reinventing America: The Workforce Summit” on Monday in Detroit, her public makeover has been in full view. Carefully coached, but engaging – at least to a point – Ms. Barra is clearly staking her claim to being the invigorated public persona of the “new” General Motors.
Is it working? To a degree, yes. Let’s not forget that the mainstream media is as shallow as a spring pond on a sidewalk when it comes to covering the auto business. (Don’t think so? Ever watch “Morning Joe” when they get into a discussion about Detroit led by Steven Rattner? It’s excruciatingly bad, even painful to watch.) But her push to reinvent GM’s “culture” – such as it is – is fraught with peril. Ms. Barra says that “you can’t fake culture” but I find her pronouncements about it to be just this side of an “Up With People” sing-a-long.
She says that GM has to appeal to the new Google-ized workforce and she’s out to see that the company changes for and with the times. That’s all well and good - it is a Google-ized world after all – but she uses her five-minute stint as head of GM HR to present herself as an expert in all things human resources, which, I’m sorry, doesn’t quite wash. Why? Because GM, like the rest of corporate America, is a kaleidoscope of micro business climates that range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Where you find the True Believers you will find an energized, switched-on GM that is doing notably wonderful things and first-rate quality work, resulting in the best products the company has ever produced. But that covers just the “one-percenters” who make up “the best and the brightest” of GM, and it’s not the real picture of a company that still, to this day, is mired in a go-along-to-get-along day-to-day-ness of it all that is not going anywhere, meaning, the intransigence of the vast gray middle is not going to change for anyone, Ms. Barra included.
But I’m glad she’s giving it a try and I’m glad that the shallow hordes occupying the mainstream media view it as being a Brand-New Day at GM, even though it’s really not. As long as GM keeps delivering excellent products, Ms. Barra will be fine. The moment they start phoning it in, or let things slide, she won’t be any different than any other CEO who suffered the consequences of not paying attention. As it should be.
Q. So, what's the deal with Ford? Will they be able to revive Lincoln? Are they too dependent on the F-150 for profitability? Is the new Ford GT really all that? Jason G. Palo Alto, California
The bigger picture question is when - not if - will the super-heated truck and crossover sales start to cool? And then what? Ford (and GM) has an array of smaller vehicles that are all but forgotten right now in the frenzy of big-vehicle sales and profitability, but when the slowdown comes Ford and GM are also better positioned to weather it more easily than before. (As for FCA, good luck. Another reason why Sergio is so desperate for a partner? When the big-vehicle frenzy slows, FCA will slide into serious distress in no time as they stumble around trying to figure out what to do when the rug is pulled out from under them.)
As for Lincoln, the slow build continues. Each month is better than the one before it but still, the brand is in desperate need of having the Continental that they unveiled at the New York show on the street. As I said in my show wrap-up, Lincoln has a real chance to gain some serious momentum with that car, mainly because the American car-buying public is hungry for some real car names again, and the design is much more striking in person, despite the bleating of the naysayers. The Continental name resonates, while the "CT6" name for Cadillac does not. It's going to be very interesting to see how this all shakes out going forward, but as always Lincoln's success will be based around the fundamental virtues and goodness of the products they bring to market. That's all that matters.
And yes, the Ford GT is all that. In fact in terms of overall performance, handling dynamics and aerodynamic efficiency, it is going to be a milestone car. And eighteen months after it finally appears on the street, it will be joined by a limited-production, mid-engined Corvette. How cool is that?
Mark Fields is focused, he has his team in place and he has the pedal down hard on the gas. I don't see any grass growing under Ford, in fact, I see that company accelerating in every facet of its business.
Q. You seem to relish taking shots at Sergio Marchionne, even though he’s the most brilliant man in the industry by far. You come off as being petty and I think people stopped paying attention to you a long time ago. How does it feel to be irrelevant? –J.D., Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Ah yes, a card-carrying member of the pitchfork-wielding Internet hordes weighs in. After going on sixteen years – count ‘em – of doing Autoextremist.com, I learned a long, long time ago that when people agree with what I write I am feted as a hero, and when they don’t like what I have to say I am vilified as being the consummate Asshole, or even better, the industry’s Anti-Christ. This just in: If you’re a nationally recognized and read commentator it’s just part of the territory.
When we started this website I set out to influence the influencers and to say what others in this business would only say in deep background or completely off the record. Let’s not forget that when we launched this publication the automotive media was, for the most part, engaged in rote story regurgitating. Stories that were, for all intents and purposes, provided and “spun” by the car company PR minions who relished spoon-feeding the too often lazy journalists who would rather keep their jobs than utter an untoward comment or discouraging word in a story. Because if they did that, they would lose their “access” card, which meant being denied a sit-down with a company leader, while their journalistic colleagues were allowed in. For a journalist back then, it was a death sentence.
The difference with this publication is that what I had to say never hinged on being granted access to those carefully orchestrated sessions with upper echelon executives. Why? Because for the most part they had absolutely nothing of import to say and their guarded, pre-programmed statements usually weren’t worth the air that was expended.
Instead, having grown up during this industry’s glory days, and having been exposed to some of the most important leaders in the history of this business, I combined that priceless exposure with a knack for understanding the auto executive mindset, to the point that - as I’ve often regaled for AE readers - executives privately told me that my accuracy into their thoughts was uncanny, frighteningly so in fact. So, in case you’re wondering, every week we’re somehow reminded of the influence and buzz that this publication enjoys. And it isn’t waning, either. In fact it has gained in strength thanks to the various social media platforms. But I digress.
As for Marchionne (it’s pronounced Mar-shone, according to the man himself), I stand by every word I have written about him since he was gifted the Chrysler Corporation by the Obama administration (see this week's "On The Table" for more -WG). As I’ve said repeatedly, Marchionne is a certified genius at manipulating other people’s money to his advantage and as a deal maker, he simply has no peer.
But being The Grand Opportunist doesn’t mean he should be immediately granted entry to the Automotive Hall of Fame. Make no mistake - if it weren’t for Sergio, that perpetual embarrassment (except for Ferrari, of course) of an Italian car company known as Fiat would be belly-up by now. Marchionne leveraged products (Jeeps and Dodge Ram trucks) already in place - thanks to the True Believers out in Auburn Hills – to resurrect Fiat and fuel his grandiose ambitions of being The Master of the Universe, the smartest guy in the room, any room, in case you had to ask.
As I said last week, being a gilded patrician and a manipulative master deal maker can’t mask the fact that Marchionne has been a carpetbagging opportunist his entire career, a glorified parasite who preys on situations that benefit him and his immediate benefactors when the opportunities present themselves, so that he can then drain the needed cash before moving on to the next conquest.
Marchionne’s latest gambit - whining to the media and the investment community about the auto industry’s desperate need for consolidation - has been a delightful, albeit painful, show to watch. Why? Because it has exposed him for what he well and truly is, and that is a guy who has ridden the wave of selling Jeeps and Ram trucks as far as he could possibly go, one who is now burdened with the depressing realization that even with that gaudy success it won’t be enough to save the floundering financial fortunes of Fiat.
In other words, his orchestrated takeover of Chrysler, the one that made him “the most brilliant man in the industry by far” is now starved for money, and he can’t understand why there isn’t anyone out there who is interested in sending him a life jacket. This after he has lectured and cajoled everyone within earshot with a withering, tediously bombastic style painted with a not-so-subtle undertone that suggests that he knows what’s best for everyone in the industry, and that unfortunately we’re collectively just too stupid to realize it. And that if we’d only just sit back and acquiesce to basking in his brilliance, we’d all be so much the better off for it.
There are no free passes in this business. Not for Mary Barra, as she will soon find out. Not for Ford with everyone scrutinizing every move Mark Fields & Co. makes. And especially not for Sergio Marchionne, whose bullying pronouncements have not only worn thin, but thankfully don’t carry nearly the weight that they used to, even with the bootlicking media that regularly did his bidding as a matter of course.
Q. I am a racing enthusiast and I have to say that I read everything I can get my hands on over the Internet about the sport. I follow Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR, and I have to say there is no one, and I mean no one out there who directs such biting criticism as you do about NASCAR. What gives? -D.R. Charlotte, North Carolina
I’ve been attending races since I was ten years old and I have been in and around the sport since then, both from the racing team side and the corporate sponsor/marketing side. In turn I bring a perspective that’s fueled by years of experience, and I understand the inner workings and nuances of the sport inside and out. An interesting and gratifying part of creating this publication every week is that my motorsport commentaries have become very influential in this business and in the motorsports community, and I have advised car companies and corporate America on their involvement in the sport for years.
Anyone who has followed my commentaries about the sport and about NASCAR in particular knows that I have the utmost respect for the talented team owners, drivers, technical people and crews who are directly involved in the sport. They are the True Believers of the sport of racing and their passion for what they do is remarkable. That said there is no doubt that I am NASCAR’s biggest critic by far.
Why? Because the distance between the corporate governance of the sport led by the France family in Daytona Beach and the realities of the day-to-day workings of the sport as perceived by the participating manufacturers and by corporate America is vast and becoming more glaring by the day. Suffice to say that NASCAR, despite its protestations otherwise, is slow to change and too insular for its own good. NASCAR conducts its business in a fog of "we've always done it this way" myopia that is simply unacceptable, especially given the world we’re living in today. And it irks me that the participating manufacturers keep throwing money into NASCAR without extracting more for those considerable sums in return. I will stop here, but if you would like to get a further glimpse as to my thoughts about NASCAR, go to this week’s “Fumes” where you’ll find my latest motorsports commentary.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.