By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. In just two and one-half months we will mark eighteen years of this publication. And no I am not going to talk about the “journey,” one of those words currently – and annoyingly - being overused. This just in: Most of the tedious endeavors people bandy about as “journeys” are no such thing; they’re simply day-to-day life events wrapped in a self-indulgent wrapper.
Autoextremist isn’t a journey in case you’re wondering. It’s a flat-out pursuit fueled by an unbridled passion and a relentless desire to bring the “Bare-Knuckled, Unvarnished, High-Octane Truth” to a business that still desperately needs it. In fact, this business needs a kick in the figurative ass more than ever.
I often talk about the two steps forward, three back “dance of mediocrity” in my columns and I’m sorry to say that nothing has changed. And I mean nothing. It’s an unending cycle. Every time it is suggested that an alleged “happening” car company or its leadership has it goin’ on, it’s inevitable that they will take several stumbling, bumbling steps back, like clockwork. And thus it was ever so.
Let’s take GM, for instance. CEO Mary Barra and her No. 2, “Dan I Am” Ammann, have won accolades for being acutely realistic about GM’s stature in the automotive world, and rightly so. GM’s honchos are no longer willing to throw good money after bad for appearances' sake or for some warped notion that they need to cling to what was once GM’s glorious past. Yes, a humiliating bankruptcy will scare anybody straight, but GM management has apparently learned those hard lessons well, and the hoary attitudes are fading from view as they display reasoned play calling on the automotive playing field. And that is a very good thing.
But - yes there’s always a “but” - Barra and Ammann’s stunning lack of experience and perspective when it comes to the marketing arena has become a glaring embarrassment, and even worse, their steadfast refusal to broaden their horizons and seek out help has only made the situation even more critical. The result? GM’s “throw-weight” when it comes to marketing expenditures vs. results is pathetically weak. They’re pissing away millions upon millions of dollars based on the whims and “expertise” of a ragtag crew of “marketers” with varying degrees of experience who careen around making decisions with no real accountability.
In other words, the marketing “buck” doesn’t stop anywhere. Instead, the dollars pissed away on ill-advised campaigns and marketing gaffes for the various divisions are like unending green confetti spewing from the tops of the Silver Silos. That’s because Barra and Ammann believe that they have marketing “handled” and they see no need for an overall chief of marketing, and it shows. Barra and Ammann’s intransigence on this crucial component of the automotive industry is beyond painful to watch.
That’s why every positive story about the “new” GM is, for me, colored by this giant cloud of piss-poor marketing that hangs over the company like an impenetrable black shroud. Where is the Board of Directors on this, other than in their perpetual state of dazed and confused? Missing in action in case you wondered, as is their wont.
As GM’s PR minions race around spinning the “bunny rabbits and rainbows” angle about Barra’s shiny happy reign, there’s an ugly undertone to the proceedings that’s being largely ignored by the mainstream automotive media. Suffice to say you won’t read anything about this anywhere else. That’s what Autoextremist.com is all about.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I don’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. I have found that giving people the benefit of the doubt in this business is a fool’s errand, because, for the most part, they are exactly who they appear to be, no matter how hard their PR minions try to gloss over reality in a series of never-ending releases brimming full of candy-coated platitudes.
I have just two perfect examples of these kinds of executive fools to offer up today – don’t worry, there are many, many more in this business – two perpetual CEOs who have left a wide swath of the “ABCs” (Arrogance, Belligerence and Condescension) in their wake. Consumed by their raging arrogance and out-of-control egos, these two executives occupy a planet unto themselves, where they are never wrong and nary a discouraging word wends their way, and should some poor unfortunate deign to cross them with their insecurities, they are dispatched with a brutal finality.
Sergio Marchionne. Renowned as a consummate deal maker he is, at his most basic essence, a loathsome carpetbagging mercenary who’s only out for himself and his Fiat family handlers. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the people at Chrysler or this area. And he never has. It was all a Shit Show Sham engineered by a calculating bullshit artist. The one irrefutable fact about Marchionne? Everyone and everything is expendable to him, as long as he gets paid.
Ferdinand Piech. The now disgraced - and exited - VW Group megalomaniac overlord was, back in the day, one of the most brilliant pure engineers in this business, responsible for some of Porsche’s greatest racing car designs. But years of his monumental ego going unchecked took its toll, and he became a caricature of himself, or as I dubbed him – “a walking, talking Klinkian nightmare.” (As in Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes, for those with a short attention span.)
Make no mistake, the VW diesel fiasco was a direct result of the culture of fear that Piech created and nurtured within VW. Those who ventured to tell him “no” or “it can’t be done” over the years were immediately jettisoned to seat-heater engineering duty, never to be heard from again. At one point, VW’s top engineers informed Piech that the company couldn’t make the stringent diesel emission standards, and how do you think that played out? Instead of dealing with that reality, they used their considerable talent to come up with a program to skirt the regulations on the emissions test. The profound arrogance embodied in the notion that they could get away with it came right from Piech. In his mind he was the industry’s Master of the Universe and Supreme Leader, and he – and his charges – were smarter than everyone else. Until they got caught, of course.
Yes, for a fleeting moment Piech was one of the best and the brightest that this industry had to offer, but that was a long, long time ago. His unbridled arrogance in recent years has cost that company dearly. And he won’t be missed.
Frankly, I never grow tired of exposing the ugliness in this business, because it’s the carpetbagging mercenaries, the spineless weasels, the unctuous pricks, the cover-their-ass bureaucrats and the recalcitrant twerps who make this whole twisted automotive circus so compelling to cover. In fact every time I say to myself, “They couldn’t actually be that stupid, could they?” I am reminded that yes, they actually can be. And too often are. Having been exposed to decades of relentless mediocrity in this business, I have corralled a set of shockingly low expectations. And guess what? I am never disappointed.
Yes, there are still hordes of True Believers around, men and women who eat, sleep and breathe this business, and who make a significant difference every single day. And thank goodness, too, because if it weren’t for them, the pod car era would be upon us sooner than we might think.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.