PRESENTING A DELIGHTFUL HOLIDAY ASSORTMENT OF CRACKPOTS, RECALCITRANT TWERPS, SPINELESS WEASELS, THE OBLIGATORY EGOMANIACAL DICTATORS AND, OF COURSE, THE TRUE BELIEVERS. NO, YOU CAN’T REALLY CONTROL IT; YOU CAN ONLY HOPE TO CONTAIN IT. THAT'S RIGHT, IT'S THE AUTOEXTREMIST YEAR IN REVIEW!
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Welcome to this "thing" called the automobile business. Like a Dead Air Circus twisting in the wind, the automobile business writ large here moves in fits and starts in a two steps forward, three back pirouette of ignominy, one that provides a constant thrum of mediocrity, a sinister Motor City soundtrack of "dark noise" if you will that is always there, looming in the background.
Is it all tedium? Thankfully, no, not by a long shot.
We are enjoying the finest cars and trucks in automotive history, and at every price point too. We’re also bathing in a golden era of performance, one that few thought would sustain itself as we march ever forward to a No Fun culture that pillories the automobile at every turn.
The looming societal storm clouds can’t dampen the inherent goodness and level of technology found in the average cars of today. It's simply staggering to contemplate the advanced technology, fuel efficiency and general level of excellence available in even the most mainstream of automobiles available. If you had predicted the level of technology and efficiency that would be available in a typical Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Camry even as recently as ten years ago most people would have scoffed at the notion.
There are no bad cars anymore because the price of entry in order to compete in this, the most competitive market in automotive history, goes up with each passing quarter. Combine that with the ever-escalating regulatory demands for more safety and more efficiency, and you have a never-ending upward spiral demanding even more overall excellence that consumes this industry's every waking hour. And all of that is wonderful and a reason to be optimistic about this business.
But, well, there’s always a “but” when it comes to the car business.
Once again we were blessed or haunted (depending on how you look at it) by an assortment of crackpots, a few actual visionaries, hordes of recalcitrant twerps, legions of spineless weasels, the obligatory egomaniacal dictators (with special emphasis on the first syllable), an unfortunately high quotient of unmitigated hacks, and of course the True Believers, because if it weren’t for their diligence, this business would implode on itself all over again.
This was the Year of the Recall, the Year of Sergio, the Year of Horsepower, the Year of Mary and for a lot of reasons, the Year from Hell.
How can that be, you say? Everyone’s making money hand over fist as the national frenzy for crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks seems to know no bounds. It’s all good, right? Yes, until it isn’t that is.
Don’t let those supercharged sales numbers go to your heads, because in typical Detroit fashion what goes up like a rocket comes down with a resounding thud. It always has and it always will. And just as the executives at the car companies here in the Motor City begin to believe their press clippings and start to think that maybe, just maybe this blissful state of soaring sales is going to stay hot forever, well, things are bound to get weird.
Though I’ve often written about the good things going on in this business, the constant misdeeds and missteps that seem to dog this industry and its players at a relentless cadence consume most of my time. That there are three dumb moves for every two smart ones in this business is a given and has been proven out over time. And to the industry honchos who are absolutely convinced that it won’t happen – or is not happening under their watch - I’ve got news: You can’t really control it; you can only hope to contain it.
I've often gone out of my way to separate the dunderheads from the True Believers in this business because to not do so would be a great disservice to the men and women who bring their talent and passion to their assignments every day. And the True Believers can be found at every level of these companies, too, from the executive suites on down.
But it’s never easy, because the mind-numbing hordes wielding their pitchforks of mediocrity are ever-present, just waiting for the True Believers to let their guard down for a millisecond so that they can wreak their particularly odious brand of havoc on the proceedings.
And that’s not the only threat for these True Believers face by any stretch, especially when chaos reigns - or has reigned - at these companies because of the constant ebb and flow of the prevailing political winds.
This has been the case throughout automotive history, and it’s not about to change anytime soon. It’s an ongoing battle of Goodness vs. Stupidity; Common Sense vs. Nonsense; the Blue Sky Visionaries vs. the We’ve Always Done It This Way Drones; and of course, the True Believers vs. the Carpetbagging Mercenaries du jour.
Yes, this business is all of that and more.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that this past year just flew by. But there’s nothing conventional about the auto biz, and besides, I beg to differ. This year didn’t fly by any stretch of the imagination. Instead it has been an excruciating grind since the doors opened for the media days at Cobo Hall eleven months ago, a Jerry McGuire-esque up at dawn pride swallowing siege for the people manning the oars on the various ships around here in the Motor City.
But hey, let’s pretend that the Good Times will last forever and that we live in a wondrous land of bunny rabbits and rainbows!
And let’s get on with the Autoextremist Year in Review, shall we?
Yeah, we know it ain’t Paris. You gotta problem with that? Detroit has its own raw power in the global automotive space that’s well founded and enduring. Detroit, bloodied and battered by bankruptcy as it is, remains one of the epicenters of the automotive universe and for the world’s auto manufacturers legitimacy is either rekindled or, as the case may be, established right here at Cobo Hall, each and every January. But now that the global auto manufacturers and the ever-increasing media hordes understand that, we all need to move on. The show organizers need to get over themselves and call it what it is: The Detroit Auto Show. And the sooner the show organizers embrace it instead of hiding behind the ponderous “NAIAS” sobriquet, the better off we’ll all be. (“WELCOME TO THE OLYMPICS OF SPIN” – January 8, 2014)
It’s also a display of automotive peacocking the likes of which has to be seen to be believed. But then again it’s there, right in the midst of the now reimagined Cobo Hall, where automotive executives - fortified with their glittering entourages of PR spin-meisters and shadowy bureaucratic functionaries - strut and fret for hours on the various stages, boasting of success and promising greatness, while steadfastly ignoring reality and too often sounding ridiculously tedious with their rote speeches and their ever more vainglorious pronouncements. Beginning Monday we’ll be immersed in a seething cauldron of oratory excess, bombarded with tales told by allegedly intelligent people who will willingly veer into idiocy at the drop of a hat, generating spin that’s full of sound and fury signifying, well, not much of anything when it comes right down to it. In other words, welcome to the Olympics of Spin. (January 8, 2014)
All Hail the Great and Powerful Sergio! (Leave your considerations with the Centurions, please.) And of course, Chrysler being Chrysler, or rather Fiat-Chrysler now being Fiat-Chrysler - since an eleventh-hour deal was consummated over the break between the UAW and Fiat, which allows that mediocre waste of an Italian car company to permanently tap into the profits from the Jeep and Ram Truck franchises, all for around $6 billion or so total - the absolute Steal of the Century, by the way – I expect that The Great Sergio will be carried in to Cobo on a gilded throne by actors portraying Roman centurions, while waving to his espresso-fueled minions and the adoring media. Oh, and they’ll show the new Chrysler 200, as if anyone really cares one lick. (January 8, 2014)
That’s 30-minutes of our lives we’ll never get back, thanks a lot. The pre-reveal for the Corvette Z06 was supposed to be cool and authentic and all “in the now.” Instead, it was nothing more than a 25-minute long processional of a Chevy Silverado pickup hauling the new Corvette Z06 on a trailer down to Cobo Hall from GM’s Tech Center in Warren, with a phalanx of new Corvettes in tow, complete with breathless audio voiceover trying to inject at least a modicum of excitement to the proceedings. It didn’t work. It must have seemed like a good idea way back when they were thinking about how to make the Z06 reveal “special,” but in reality it reminded us of a certain low-speed police chase in Southern California eons ago that featured O.J. and that now infamous white Bronco. In other words, it was interminable. Where was the video highlighting the legacy of 60 plus years of Corvette in competition? There has to be some historical racing footage in the GM archives that would have made for a memorable visual presentation before the big reveal. Anyone? Bueller? It could have been so much better. (A KALEIDOSCOPE OF THE PRETTY GOOD, THE REALLY BAD AND THE JUST PLAIN UGLY. WELCOME TO THE LAND OF OVERPROMISE AND UNDERDELIVER, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE 2014 DETROIT AUTO SHOW.” - January 15, 2014)
Porsche introduces its newly reinvigorated product strategy: Ka. And Ching. Porsche unveiled the 911 Targa at its press conference, a clear homage to a model that existed in the 60s and 70s. This latest “re-imagination” of the Targa concept was replete with the brushed aluminum Targa bar and a stupendously complicated automatic roof panel. It was cool, if you really are nostalgic for the Targa of old. Other than that, the new Targa was just the latest in a long line of calculated model extensions that Porsche has become masters of. Yes, as a matter of fact they do sit around thinking of more creative ways to extract money from the faithful, in case you’re wondering. It’s now their raison d’etre, in fact. (January 15, 2014)
After negotiating the BMW display at Cobo, I’m quite certain that a BMW pickup truck is in our future. BMW was only marginally better than the minions at M-B, at least they aren’t attempting to shove “look at us, we’re hip” down our throats. The new 2 series made its debut, with the red M235i supposedly getting most of the attention, or was it the new M3 getting all the attention, or, wait a minute, maybe it was supposed to be the M4 Coupe? I’m not really sure. Or was it the 3 series GT? Or the X1, X3 or X5? Or the i3 or i8? And does it really matter? BMW, like Mercedes, has decided that a scorched-earth policy is simply the most brilliant stroke for this market. The Magic Formula (at least in their minds) goes something like this: More Vehicles + More Nameplates = Spectacular Results. That both manufacturers have managed to lose the plot entirely is inconsequential, apparently. (January 15, 2014)
We’ve driven sports cars. Sports cars have been friends of ours. That’s no sports car. Did Audi manage to distance itself from the BMW vs. Mercedes scrum? Well, not really. The smaller Q3 crossover was revealed, because, well, you just can’t get enough of them, according to Audi. And then Audi unveiled something called the “allroad shooting brake” that "combines a host of visual elements of future sports car models…” Audi is now officially designating all future crossovers as "sports car" offerings. It was, quite simply, one of the lowest moments to come out of the show because it confirmed the real “Truth in Engineering” when it comes to Audi: They think they’re better than BMW and Mercedes, which flat-out isn’t true. And remarkably enough they’re even more arrogant. And this just in: They’re never wrong either. Having this kind of attitude usually doesn’t end well for car companies. Audi will be no exception. (January 15, 2014)
An unexpected gem in the Ford display was the presence of the Ford 1 Concept, which was the compact, mid-engine, two-seater that Ford unveiled at the U.S. Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, New York, back in 1962. It was also the first time “Mustang” appeared on a Ford vehicle. It still looks fabulous today. (January 15, 2014)
The Nancy Kerrigan “Why Me, Why Now?” Award goes to… The VW Beetle Dune concept. As in you have to be kidding, right? There’s some convoluted explanation roiling around out there as to why this dismal exercise in “Yeah, that’s right, we don’t have a frickin’ clue as to what we’re doing” product “imagination” exists, but I haven’t heard of one that makes a lick of sense. For all of the "I'm the King of the World!" plans of their maniacal leader, Dr. Piech, VW manages to shoot itself in the head in this market with its house brand, repeatedly. And they still don't get it. What a mess. (January 15, 2014)
The Just Take Me Out Back and Shoot Me Award goes to… The Toyota FCV (fuel cell concept vehicle), which had not one single redeeming quality about it. Not one. It’s a design abomination of monumental proportion. Congratulations to all who were involved with it, we hope you’re able to find work. (January 15, 2014)
Your sheer, unmitigated loathsomeness will not soon be forgotten. And what would the 2014 Detroit Auto Show be without more news from the departing Captain Queeg? Dan Akerson, of course, had Queen Mary in tow on his slow-motion, hackneyed victory lap of sorts at the show on Tuesday (the Unctuous Prick’s Last Day, by the way) because, in case you’ve forgotten, Akerson’s three-pronged (count ‘em) legacy that’s being crafted as you read this by his Chief Apologist/PR Bag Man Selim Bingol consists of the following: 1. Dan Akerson alone saved General Motors from itself. Nobody else. Not the True Believers in Design. Not the True Believers in Engineering. Not the True Believers in Product Development. It was Dan Akerson alone who saved GM and don’t you ever forget it. 2. He’s the Greatest GM CEO Of All Time, period. And 3. He’s the brilliant visionary who was singularly responsible for promoting a woman to be the first CEO of a car company. Not that she’s isn't eminently qualified, of course, that’s beside the point, in fact. He did it; therefore he’s The Man. That’s all we need to know, right? Right. Good riddance, Dan, and have fun regaling your D.C. cronies on how you alone saved GM. (January 15, 2014)
Every time this business has succumbed to lowest-common-denominator thinking – and wanting recognition for just showing up - it hasn’t ended well. I took some shots last week from readers who thought I was too harsh on the Detroit Auto Show, that I should give the automakers and their executives a break for trying hard and doing their best. I thought I was eminently fair, however. As I’ve stated repeatedly from Day One of this publication, car companies and their executives don’t deserve a pass just for showing up. This just in: Mediocrity isn’t bliss in this business. It never has been and it never will be. I get the fact that standard operating procedure in this country nowadays dictates that kids get gold stars, trophies and group hugs just for dressing for a soccer game, but the last time I checked, that doesn’t pass muster in the car business. (DETROIT AUTO SHOW AFTERMATH: THE RATIONALIZATIONS, THE EXCUSES AND THE "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?” – January 22, 2014)
Please stop talking now, we’re begging you. Thank you. Michael Sprague, Kia Motors’ EVP of marketing, was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying, “Waiting until Feb. 2 just doesn’t make sense. There are people out there who are looking for information about Super Bowl and if I can pique their interest now and feed them content over the next four weeks they will be more engaged with my brand over that time and then more engaged with my spot come Super Bowl Sunday.” Remember what I said about marketing types talking to themselves? When was the last time Kia did anything more than what I define as “advertising cotton candy” on the Super Bowl? You know, the kind of ad that tastes good for a few seconds and then is instantly forgettable? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
The marketers who buy into this latest trend are missing the point in a big way. Massaging the message through social media may feel good, but at the end of the game, which ads are the ones that stand out? The brilliant concept ads that were completely unexpected, or the ones that were beaten to death in the run-up to the game?
I come down hard on the side of door No. 1. As a matter of fact there is only one automotive marketer who understands this concept implicitly and delivers the goods more often than not when the situation demands it, particularly on the Super Bowl. Only one.
Olivier Francois, Fiat-Chrysler’s marketing chief, understands ”big moment” advertising better than anyone in the business, and though I’ve had problems with his endless self-promotional tendencies, the guy not only gets it, he delivers. The rest are simply missing the point before they even get started. (“MISSING THE POINT” – January 29, 2014)
You better get used to the notion of Dan “I’ll be the next chairman of General Motors, just watch me” Ammann. That Ammann fancies himself as The Shit is apparent for all to see. He goes out of his way to insist that he isn’t just a bean counter but a true car guy, touting his certification to drive on GM’s Milford Road Course and the Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany as proof. That’s all well and good, but make no mistake, this move was made for the benefit of Wall Street, who isn’t comfortable unless they see one of their own near the top of GM. And Ammann is their guy. (“WHAT NEXT FOR GM?” – February 12, 2014)
… we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
On the one hand, that this business is hanging by a razor-thin thread of cautious optimism even with the gathering storm clouds on the horizon is to be commended, in a Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way. On the other it is to be pitied, too, because when this business gets it wrong and augurs in to the ground due to its own serial incompetence and relentless stupidity, it doesn’t take a few quarters to pick up the pieces, it’s a painful recovery that’s measured out in years.
But then again these automakers will never get a “quick rinse” free pass again. If they venture into The Darkness once more, there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. There will only be more darkness and a choking sense of foreboding.
A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens-penned masterpiece from over 150 years ago, spoke of a different time and a different era marked with churning consternation and unbridled rancor and fears the likes of which none of us are familiar.
Yet here we are mired in a tale of two cities of a different sort, with the two “Detroits” once again at war with each other.
On the one hand we have the “old” Detroit, a sodden mess of an auto business and a city – each burdened with the devastating effects of a pervasive union mentality that has long since past its usefulness that conspired together to get lost in a lumbering cadence of lowest-common-denominator “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that actually caused some people to believe that “good enough” mediocrity was not only somehow sufficient, but desired, while the world changed dramatically all around them and moved on.
On the other we have the “new” Detroit trying to project itself as a glimmering beacon of hope in the darkness, an industry emboldened with new products, new vision and a feisty new competitive spirit, augmented by a city that has been reborn and rejuvenated after years of being the country's punch line, one teeming with new enlightenment and perspective while pointing to a limitless future.
The reality is that Detroit – the car business and the city – is somewhere in between, and on any given day the pendulum can swing from one extreme to the other. (“WELCOME TO THE WINTER OF DETROIT’S DISCONTENT.” – February 19, 2014)
The name is Sloan. Alfredo Sloan. The all-knowing and all-powerful leader of the Fiat Chrysler enterprise has been anointed The Altruistic Savior of all he surveys by the bootlicking hordes in “the media,” portrayed as the man who pulled the doddering old Chrysler out of the depths of despair while giving its huddling, downtrodden masses who were facing a certain death sentence a reason to live. And it’s all unmitigated bullshit too.
Marchionne is a shrewd, make that brilliant deal maker who happened to be in the right place at the right time and who was able to abscond with the car company formerly known as Chrysler lock, stock and barrel for the staggeringly paltry sum of $6 billion, all in. And in one fell swoop he gave the idle aristocracy who inherited the Fiat "empire" – and had almost run it into the ground once and for all - another lease on life. For that he has been granted career canonization the likes of which has never been seen before in this business, sort of an Alfredo Sloan for our times.
But then again there’s another side to Sergio that isn’t sexy, glamorous or all knowing, which is why it continuously goes unreported.
Marchionne’s brilliance when it comes to putting together big picture deals is unquestioned. Let’s face it, anyone who can walk away with the Jeep brand for the above-mentioned sum and get the rest of Chrysler in the bargain is a frickin’ genius.
But The Other Sergio is a plodding, micro-managing maniac who believes that Fiat Chrysler employees – no matter what the level - should be happy that they’re allowed to be in his presence. And for that, and the occasional opportunity to be bathed in the warmth from the glow as The Great One passes them in the hallway, they get a shockingly head-in-sand management approach - a time-tested legacy of the Fiat “empire” that’s unwanted and unwarranted - yet shoved down the throats of the Auburn Hills faithful with astonishing regularity.
The ingrained backwardness with which the Italians approach everything actually has the denizens in Auburn Hills reeling from having to dumb down the way they do things to appease their Italian handlers on a daily basis. Sergio’s espresso-swilling minions regularly ignore hard-earned and hard-won lessons that have stood the test of time in this business in favor of doing things “their” way, even if it jeopardizes the company’s competitive standing in the market or it costs the company millions in do-overs and start overs.
The arrogance of the Italian overlords running Chrysler now rivals the arrogance displayed by the German overlords back when Daimler had its crack at the keys to the Jeep-Truck kingdom. Combine that with their openly hostile attitude, which states that every supplier who brings an idea or a product to them can, as they often say, “cut your number in half and then we’ll talk.” It’s a wonderful way to build trust in the supplier community and an even better way to ensure that FCA misses out on leading-edge technology and thinking across all disciplines.
And Sergio’s latest management brainstorm is to jettison anyone over 50 (no, you won’t read this anywhere else) because they’ve become liabilities and are not forward thinking enough. Top-notch, seasoned executives are being shown the door in favor of young, inexperienced replacements with the inevitable result: The young hires are being blown out and replaced by similarly young and inexperienced people and guess why? They can’t do the work because they don’t have enough experience. It’s a revolving door of mediocrity that just keeps doubling up on itself. Meanwhile, the senior-level managers, sensing the tide, are gathering in droves at the door clamoring for a way out.
That’s right, there are Two Sergios at work here. On the one hand there’s “The King” - the genius deal maker and media darling who walks on water, and then there’s the paranoid, micro-mismanaging bumbler who, along with his posse, is projecting Fiat’s historically losing ways on to the True Believers out in Auburn Hills. You know, the ones who deserve so much better than what they’re getting.
A little madness in the Spring is wholesome even for the King.
~ Emily Dickinson
I think I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with Emily on this one. A lot less madness from Sergio would be a welcome breath of spring out in Auburn Hills. (“THE TWO SERGIOS.” – February 26, 2014)
It’s notgonnahappen. Not in our lifetime at least. When all is said and done, it’s a cultural thing. In Europe Cadillac is an all-American brand treading water in a sea of ultra-competitive cars from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And these star luxury-performance makes are more than just homeland brands, they’re rolling points of pride and symbols of technological supremacy, which the German public holds dear, for the most part. (There’s no doubt that the anti-car movement is gaining steam in Europe, but for now, homeland pride in Germany’s star brands holds sway.) I get the distinct impression that GM management’s relentless naiveté is getting the best of them. They have somehow come to believe that by using a little homespun Jimmy Stewart colloquial speak, as in “Aw shucks, we make some damn fine cars, come take a look” that they will slowly but surely turn the tide in Europe for Cadillac. (“GM’S EUROPEAN FOLLY.” – March 5, 2014)
But in discussing all of this it is important to remember that the Ford Motor Company is different, and that the passing of William Clay Ford is significant because of what it means to his family, the company and the industry at large.
When you live around here, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “working at Ford’s.” You’ll never hear that when people discuss working at the other car companies, and that is because “working at Ford’s” means working directly or indirectly for the Ford family, who still retain control and very much a vibrant interest in the family business, which, lest we forget, is one of the most important industrial legacies in America and part of the very fabric of this nation.
In the global automobile business as it is defined today the Ford Motor Company remains a unique operation, a family-owned and run business that stands out among the faceless corporate entities that make up the rest. Yes, there are family legacies at some of the other car companies around the world, but Ford is different and will always be different.
And that is because the Ford family cares. They care about the company’s role in providing for so many families in the community, they care about the family’s historical legacy, and they care that the Ford Motor Company continues to deliver a kaleidoscope of effective transportation choices for people all around the world.
And the fact that the family does care has endeared the Ford Motor Company to people around here in a way that the other car companies in town never will.
The members of the Ford family work in and around the company in various capacities, too, with William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman, the most visible. It is simply extraordinary that the family has remained engaged and involved in the company for 110 years, and that’s due to the fact that they have never slacked off or “phoned it in” but instead have kept the flame and the family legacy alive for generations to come.
The passing of William Clay Ford does mark the end of an era, as he was the last living connection to the very beginnings of the automobile business.
But it’s also a reaffirmation of a most remarkable legacy, one that William Clay Ford Jr. and the other members of the Ford family will now proudly carry on. (“A MOST REMARKABLE LEGACY.” – March 10, 2014)
(Images courtesy of the Ford Motor Company)
William Clay Ford on Ford's Dearborn Test Track at the age of 14 in 1939.
William Clay Ford (right) prepares to light the William Clay furnace at Ford Motor Company's Rouge River Complex, in 1948.
William Clay Ford became an employee of Ford Motor Company in 1949, joining his brothers, Benson Ford (left), and Henry Ford II (right).
As head of the Continental Division from 1954-56, William Clay Ford oversaw development of the 1956 Continental Mark II, successor to the classic Lincoln Continental developed under the direction of his father, Edsel Ford.
William Clay Ford and William Clay Ford Jr. celebrating William Clay Ford Jr.'s first day at work in 1979.
William Clay Ford.
Goodnight everybody, you’ve been great! Try the prime rib, it’s delicious! Bob Ferguson, GM’s former head lobbyist, went back to Washington to help navigate the arrival of GM’s Implosion Train, which is making its next stop in our nation’s capitol to get its obligatory public flogging in front of our esteemed grandstanding blowhards in Congress.
You remember Bob Ferguson, don’t you? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Ferguson, GM’s chief lobbyist from 2010-2012, was the guy plucked from obscurity on a whim by former CEO Dan Akerson, because ol’ Captain Queeg thought Bob was just the guy to run Cadillac globally for the now-reeling automaker.
This move puzzled insiders and outside observers alike at the time, because Ferguson was amazingly devoid of any qualifications for the assignment whatsoever. After all, Cadillac (along with Chevrolet) was one of GM’s showpiece divisions, and the push to project GM’s luxury division globally was an urgently important task. And it was clear to everyone but the aforementioned Queeg that appointing Ferguson to the job was akin to hiring the kid who used to deliver the papers in your neighborhood for a major corporate role because he was a real go-getter and he smiled a lot.
But the elevation of Ferguson – or “Amway” Bob as I called him because the first time he presented himself in front of the media he came off like a cheerleader warming up the room for an Amway sales meeting - was consistent with Akerson’s malicious reign of terror within GM, whereupon anyone who didn’t smack of “old” GM immediately went to the head of the line for kudos, accolades and prized jobs, whether deserved or not.
Ferguson wasn’t just plucked from obscurity, however. He was intercepted from another planet altogether and given the reins of GM’s luxury division because that miserable excuse of a former CEO thought Bob was a “smart” guy who could do just as well in the job as anyone else within the halls of the Silver Silos. And it worked fabulously. Not. (“MR FERGUSON GOES (BACK) TO WASHINGTON.” – March 29, 2014)
As boot-lickin’ hacks go, you guys are the best. And to think I was taken to task by the many lesser lights in the so-called “automotive media” for being too harsh on Akerson. That I was going over the top and losing perspective, especially by one remarkably talentless local hack (who shall remain nameless) who toils for a publication that is barely worthy of lining a birdcage. Well, this just in: You all missed it. And you should all be ashamed of yourselves. Every last boot-lickin’ one of you. You all toadied up to Selim Bingol (Akerson’s unctuous prick of a PR bag man) in order to curry favor with the Big Guy, so that you could run back to your editors with breathless prose designed to promote Akerson as one of the great leaders of automotive history. And so that you could then be granted even more access in the future, in order to write even more worthless stories. (You can all stop looking down at your wingtips and cowering in your power cubes in the hopes that no one will notice you, too, because it won’t help. I will be glad to remind everyone who you are in my next book: Hacks I Have Known. It’s the least I can do.) (“WE MAY NEVER PASS THIS WAY AGAIN. GM AT A CROSSROADS. – April 4, 2014)
The Mustang was not only the right car at the right time, it changed everything. And the social media buzz that manufacturers are so desperate to control and influence today? It’s nothing more than the latest form of the most powerful advertising, which is still word of mouth. The Mustang was a word-of-mouth star. Everyone in the country was seeing it, talking about it and wanting it. It was the four-wheeled equivalent of the frenzy surrounding the original iPhone.
There has never been a marketing launch like the Mustang in this business and we'll likely never see one like it again. Why? Too much has changed, for one thing. The upward trajectory America that thrived in the 60s has been replaced by a tentative, everyone gets a trophy and a hug America. The societal imprint is so decidedly different than it was back then that we’ll never see that level of interest surrounding the launch of a new automobile again.
The sad reality is that handheld devices have replaced automobiles in terms of creating fundamental desire among most younger people, and the chance of seeing a manufacturer come up with anything that has the impact of the Mustang in the modern era is less than zero.
But for a fleeting, magical moment in time Ford captured lightning in a bottle with the Mustang. And marketers to this day are still "cooking" the formula, trying to capture that kind of magic again. (“IT CHANGED EVERYTHING.” – April 12, 2014)
(Photos courtesy of Ford)
There aren’t? You gotta be frickin’ kiddin’ me! I caught a lot of car companies chasing their tails at the New York Auto Show, ignoring the two most enduring tenets of the business, which are:
1. It’s about The Product. It always has been and it always will be too.
2. Design is still the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. If you don’t have it, you can’t hide it. And if, as a manufacturer, you go all vanilla hoping to offend the fewest people, you’ll probably end up attracting the fewest people as well.
And if there’s a third, it’s this: There are no Magic Beans to be found in this business.
Instead it’s about designing, engineering and building fundamental product goodness and having the focused consistency not to waver from that mission.
It’s about creating products that are emotionally compelling to look at, fun to drive and rewarding to own.
And it’s about adhering to the core competencies of the brand. In other words, whatever you’re good at and whatever your reputation is based upon, you better deliver on that promise. Anything less and you will get lost in the shuffle, or just get lost, period.
And of course it’s about not veering into niches or segments that you don’t belong in, no matter how enticing they are.
There are no Magic Beans to be had in this business, but given what was on display in New York a shocking number of manufacturers seem to have forgotten that fact. (“IN SEARCH OF THE MAGIC BEANS.” – April 20, 2014)
Same as it ever was, folks. Yes, certainly economic factors contribute mightily to these boom-and-bust cycles, but make no mistake, when these car companies go off the rails they only have themselves to blame. Because if they dig deep and do some serious soul searching they will realize that they not only allowed it to happen, they willingly participated in it every step of the way.
But then again this is how it works in the Motor City. It’s part of the culture, pure and simple. You ride the big rocket for all it’s worth, and then you go down in flames in spectacular fashion.
In other words, it’s all good until it isn’t. Is there any chance any of this will smooth out and this business as practiced here will evolve into an even flow of gradual increases and nice profits in a sustained growth pattern? Not even.
For the collective car companies that toil under the moniker “Detroit, Inc.” the rocket ride of boom and bust punctuated by hand-wringing and complacency is the Devil they know intimately. As a matter of fact, they couldn’t do it any other way. (“THE DEVIL DETROIT KNOWS.” – May 14, 2014)
I could call these guys out for not only slurping from the company cocktail at a prodigious rate, but that they come equipped with a company IV and a patch too, etc. But let’s dispense with the niceties and call them out for what they are: Flat-out crazy. The key to Kia’s Quixotic Quest is the K900 sedan, a car that seemed to have potential once upon a time - oh, for like five minutes - but that in the flesh is decidedly ordinary, a mishmash of ingredients thrown together as if to say, “See, we can do it too! As good as everyone else in fact!” But in fact, it’s not. The K900 is like going to the electronics store in search of the latest and greatest innovation in televisions and settling for an off-brand because it was cheaper and, if you squinted a lot, it kinda-sorta looked as good as the real thing.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, to say the least, but when Lee Soon-nam, Kia’s overseas marketing guru, told Automotive News in an interview that Kia “… can reach mainstream and then, in another five years, we should be leader in the market” - on par with Toyota and VW by 2018, in case you’re wondering what he’s talking about - these guys deserve to take some serious shots.
I get the fact that Kia is obsessed to get out from under their onerous (to them) relationship-by-holding-company status with Hyundai, but throwing down insane predictions for success, like they can turn on a giant spigot and world-beater Kias will come running out is not only flat-out delusional, but a particularly shocking brand of arrogance cum insanity that the Korean car companies seem to specialize in, one that pretty much defies having at least a shred of rational thinking attached to it. (“ARROGANCE + DELUSION = THE INDUSTRY’S MOST LETHAL COCKTAIL.” – May 21, 2014)
Yeah, that’s believable. Most glaring of the dubious findings in the Valukas report was that GM’s General Counsel, Michael Millikin, was completely unaware of what was going on until this past February, but that two of his deputies were knee-deep in it and lost their jobs because of it.
Really? Millikin is the architect of GM’s feared legal department, an “Adjustment Bureau” of sorts that runs roughshod over anything and everything inside that corporation, whether it comes under the purview of the legal department or not.
“Not knowing” is as far away from Millikin’s modus operandi as you can possibly get. This guy takes great pride in knowing everything there is to know about the company, often putting his nose – and the boots of his legal storm troopers – in places that they don’t belong, to the detriment of many. It should be no surprise that Millikin was one of Dan Akerson’s closest - if not the closest – allies, and the two were joined at the hip while plotting, ruminating and generally concocting mayhem within the company according to Captain Queeg’s mood on any given day.
So two of Millikin’s top lieutenants get the ax, but Millikin escapes to fight another day? That’s unmitigated bullshit, and it was a definitive indicator to me that the report was a vacuous document, one that left names out while selectively applying accountability where it seemed appropriate to placate outside scrutiny. (“THOUGHTS ON THE GM FIASCO AND THE AE BRAND IMAGE METER III. – June 11, 2014. Editor’s Note: Millikin has retired from GM. – WG)
In other words, an incurable case of brand delusion. Winning car companies understand that expert brand image wrangling can make or break their efforts. Having outstanding products is a fundamental requirement, of course, but knowing how to present those products and being able to expertly nurture a brand’s image completes the equation. And less-than-winning car companies, or car companies only intermittently able to be on their games for whatever the reasons (infighting, lack of talent, abject stupidity or all of the above), pay for their mistakes exponentially, compounding their troubles with each misstep. As I’ve said before, executives at the less-than-winning car companies get into trouble because they actually start to think that they’re selling something they’re not, which leads them to deluding themselves into thinking that their products are something other than what they are. (June 11, 2014)
No automobile company portrays the burgeoning Dr. Jekyll & Hyde disease that’s infecting the German luxury-performance brands better than BMW. After having a series of BMWs to drive over the last month or so, we experienced the sublime – the 640i Gran Coupe and the 435i – to the utterly ridiculous – the 335i xDrive GT. The dichotomy that exists at BMW is evident at Audi and Mercedes-Benz too. German auto executives believe with absolute certainty that if they cover every niche in the market – both real and imagined – it will ensure their survival and profitability, Brand Image be damned. But it doesn’t work – at least not without serious consequences - and they’re likely to find out the hard way that there are painful ramifications that come with their actions. And that having a BMW (or Audi, or Mercedes) in every garage is a recipe for Not Good, not a grand plan for long-term success. The journey that the Bavarian company has been on, from purveyors of the original sport sedan – the vaunted 2002 – to the ubiquitous luxury brand that it is today has been well documented, and BMW certainly has its act down cold. But almost everything that made BMW a BMW has been lost in translation. The light, nimble, toss-able sedans that launched the company have given way to bloated sedans, SUVs and crossovers that have about as much in common with the original idea as today’s O.J. Simpson has with the legendary USC football star. Will BMW still sell prodigious amounts of BMWs? Yes, of course they will. But people are buying BMWs because they think they should be driving them, instead of lusting after the vehicles because they can deliver a driving experience like no other. There’s a big difference. There are still enough authentic BMWs being built to keep the BMW faithful happy, but how long will that last? The AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Hot to very lukewarm, depending on which BMW we’re talking about. (June 11, 2014)
If this stuff were easy, everyone would have 30 percent market share and the streets in auto centers around the world would be paved with platinum. And when you listen to CEOs like Carlos and Sergio long enough, you get the idea that is exactly what they expect. But this just in: It doesn’t work that way, and when you have multiple manufacturers clamoring for the same slice of the pie and making the same sort of promises, something has to give, and Brand Image becomes even more crucial.
Automakers who are in search of a Brand Image and understand the power that comes with having a solid one garner the tiniest bit of slack from me, because at least they know what they want and where they need to go. But the automakers that have a brand image and don’t have the first clue as to what to do with it, or worse, have squandered a great brand legacy because of cluelessness, ineptitude, or both, draw zero sympathy from me.
It’s duly noted that the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every waking moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the Brand Image department, and they will continue to do so.
The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be a full-time career trajectory.
Brand Image is a fleeting thing, except for those brands that understand how they got it, what it took to get it to that point, and what it will take to keep it. (June 11, 2014)
That cynicism emanates from what seems to be a fundamental belief held by the minions in Silicon Valley that all of their ideas are not only brilliant, but also infallible, even if the rest of us don’t get it. It’s that old “you’re just not hip enough to understand” argument that is used by practitioners in various professional pursuits. (Often used by auto designers when their designs are met with an underwhelming response from the unenlightened.)
This collective “they” envisions a lovely little world of its own making, free of hassles and ugliness and of aggravations and bad days. A world devoid of harshness because everything is thought of and everything is wonderfully taken care by visionary technology that asks nothing of you and requires no effort on your part.
Don’t want to step up to the realities of mobility and the freedom that comes with it? That’s okay, Uber will take care of you and then you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, because after all, that would be “harsh.” This warped logic is a natural outgrowth of a generation that has been told since Day One that they’re indeed special, that if you try but fail it’s okay because everybody gets a trophy, a hug and some ice cream afterward.
Combine that thread of orchestrated, unnatural bliss with the burgeoning anti-car movement, which is powered by insular, narrowly focused zealots unburdened with a shred of reality, and you have the makings of a muddled mess of a lethal cocktail, comprised of equal parts rancor and flat-out stupidity.
Or, in short, the orchestrated bleating of a few who are trying to impose their will on the many, couching it in the platitudes of “it’s for your own good.” Swell.
This just in: Life isn’t orchestrated. And life doesn’t always happen the way it’s supposed to, or at least the way we think it should. In fact, life is messy, as Rodney Crowell once so eloquently put it. And no matter how much the Silicon Valley hordes think they can create their own manufactured reality to avoid the realities of life, it just isn’t going to go down that way. (“UBER STUPID.” – June 18, 2014)
And what is the problem, exactly? Well, as anything to do with GM, it’s a long, sordid story. It started back when GM’s maliciously incompetent and reactionary former CEO – that now-legendary hack, Dan Akerson - began wreaking havoc on the company internally, while making decisions he was ill equipped for. Some of those decisions will manifest themselves to great negative effect for years to come, but one of the most glaring and immediately damaging actions was his complete decimation of the marketing function at GM. Akerson decided that then Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick was getting too much media attention – Captain Queeg absolutely despised anyone getting press besides him because, after all, it was his company damnit and he didn’t think anyone else was worthy to talk to the media – and jettisoned him from the company via trumped-up charges that proved to be complete fiction. Akerson’s purging of Ewanick came with the edict that there would be “no more ‘rock star’ CMOs” at the company, an edict that has been brainwashed into the current GM management team. The problem was that the “no more ‘rock star’ CMOs” translated to no CMO at all, and GM marketing has remained rudderless without a genuine leader ever since. (“GM’S OTHER NIGHTMARE.” – June 25, 2014)
The subtleties of Mulally’s style weren’t something that Fields encountered in his advanced business school lessons, or in his travels through the labyrinth of the Ford corporate system. Mulally’s innate ability to get people to see the big picture, understand the ramifications of every decision, and to focus on the crucial issues that mattered most is now legendary, in the truest sense of that word. But the effervescent Kansan also brought a steely-eyed toughness to the proceedings that most outside observers missed, and he did it with a directness wrapped in an unfailing kindness that moved massive egos off of the dime, every time.
And that had a deep impact on Mark Fields. In fact for someone like Fields, who in the past has brandished his Jersey Boy toughness in an instant, it may have been the most important lesson of all.
For all of its rough-hewn sensibilities, all of its boorish braggadocio, all of its relentless 24/7 slog that consumes everything and everyone immersed in it, the automobile business is about people. It’s about getting people to work together. It’s about getting people to lift their eyes up a few degrees so they can see over the top of their silos and understand that focused attention to detail in pursuit of a common goal can produce tremendous results for all concerned.
In essence, it’s the Art of Leadership in its most basic form.
That’s the true genius of Alan Mulally and his impact on the Ford Motor Company, and that’s the ultimate lesson that Mark Fields will take with him going forward. (“YOU’RE UP MR. FIELDS.” – July 2, 2014)
And finally, what would a column about the industry’s bad words be worth if it didn’t include a mention of Sergio Marchionne? The Great Deal Maker has spewed his share of inanities since he and his espresso-swilling minions were gifted the Chrysler Corporation, but his most recent gambit might just take the cake, at least until the next one.
The Great Sergio was stunned a few months ago when his latest five-year plan - which he brought down from the mountaintop etched on carbon fiber tablets so the assembled multitudes could bask in the glow of his brilliance – fell on deaf ears.
It seems that Wall Street didn’t buy his predictions for Alfa Romeo (sales of 75,000 Alfas a year by 2018? Yeah, right), and they didn’t buy where all the money was going to come from to fuel his product dreams for the FCA Empire, either. And either did anyone else for that matter. (Well, except for certain members of the media who got coffee cups with Sergio’s likeness on them to add to their collection of other bootlicking mementos accrued over the years, and certain dealers of course. But then again they’ll believe anything as long as they’re making money. But I digress.)
Leave it to Marchionne to add some new bad words to the automotive lexicon, to wit: “People in the U.S. like Chrysler, they like what happened. We were the poor kids, the Cinderella of the ball; we were given 2 cents to make it to Christmas and we are still here. We paid all the money back and it was clean."
Oh my. A carpetbagging mercenary equating being handed Chrysler by the U.S. government so he could prop-up that perennially failing, miserable excuse for a car company (aka Fiat) with the profits from selling Jeeps and Ram trucks a Cinderella Story? It's a fairy tale all right, from the children's classic, You Just Can't Make This Shit Up. (“BAD WORDS.” – July 9, 2014)
Little Red Riding Hood, meet the Big Bad Wolf. When you really look at Ms. Barra’s career trajectory it’s not surprising to me in the least that she allowed Michael Millikin to weasel himself into the inner sanctum of power and proved himself to be “indispensable.” After all, Akerson did the “hand-off” of Millikin to Barra insisting that in Millikin she had someone she could trust implicitly, which she went along with because, well, Akerson did promote her to be CEO. And from that moment on she was no match for the manipulative skills that Millikin brings to bear.
This is a man who has made a career out of exploiting executives’ weaknesses – except in the case of Akerson of course, that was just a nasty corporate bromance of maniacal happenstance – and he wore his “wise corporate counsel” cloak like a Cardinal roaming the halls of the Vatican, dispensing his vast wisdom and experience with glee.
And frankly, Ms. Barra never had a chance.
Long shielded and nurtured in the labyrinthine halls of engineering while going from one project to the next – her eighteen-month stint as head of Global HR didn’t count for much of anything, you can look it up - Ms. Barra was ill equipped for the diabolical machinations that Millikin has at his disposal.
Plucked almost out of obscurity to run one of the biggest corporations in the world, Barra was a mouth-watering target for Millikin, a Little Red Riding Hood lost in the dark corporate forest, as Millikin, reveling in his role as Big Bad Wolf, sheltered and protected her, counseling her as to what was important, who to trust and how to get things done. Barra allowed herself to be misled into thinking that Millikin had only her – and GM’s – best interests in mind, when in fact she was just the next prey that Millikin could play with, until he retired.
And then the recall shit hit the fan. And unfortunately, Ms. Barra’s brainwashing at the hands of one of the most manipulative corporate operators this town has ever seen was revealed for all to see at the Senate hearings last week. (“MARY BARRA’S MISPLACED SENSE OF LOYALTY WILL COST HER.” – July 23, 2014)
Editor’s Note: We are running the following column by Peter in its entirety as the defining document on the devastating effect Dan Akerson’s Reign of Terror had on General Motors. – WG
Pardon me for thinking that we’d heard the last from Dan Akerson, that loathsome and now legendary carpetbagging tool who held the reins of GM in his hands for three-and-one-half excruciatingly painful years. Forgive me for thinking that the Unctuous Prick would take his leave and quietly retreat to the friendly confines of Washington, D.C., so he could regale his cronies how he survived his near-charitable stint in the hinterlands, trying to impart his wisdom to the poor unfortunates who toiled away in such a pathetically backward business that it’s a wonder it functioned at all before he got there. And please cut me some slack, because I thought that after such an embarrassing run at the top of what was once America’s industrial showpiece, where he was simply reviled and despised at every level of the corporation, that Akerson would keep his mouth shut, especially in the midst of the biggest crisis in the company’s history (other than the bankruptcy, of course).
No such luck, however.
Safely ensconced back hard by the Potomac, the former CEO gets his chance to obfuscate, deny and continue his game of self-entitled outrage at GM's so-called "culture" laced with his usual cloying air of superiority - his M.O. for three-and-a-half tedious and tiresome years while at the helm of GM - in an interview by David Shephardson in Monday's The Detroit News. Why Shephardson thought it would be a good thing to let Akerson pontificate once more is questionable but in the end he did us all a great service, because the depth and breadth of Akerson’s gift of self-delusion is there for all to see. I view the interview now as yet another important entry into The Historical Document of Bullshit marking Akerson’s Reign of Terror at General Motors.
Playing his Sergeant Schultzian "I know nothing" defense to perfection, Akerson blamed GM's culture and didn't own up to anything, except that he was a genius for promoting Mary Barra. In one particularly telling passage, Akerson railed at Internet chatter calling the suggestion that GM could soften criticism of its mishandling of the recall by promoting the first woman to lead an automaker ridiculous, adding, "fools can say anything... We have four women on the board. You’d have to be so cynical. You’d have to be a terrible person to even (think it).” Akerson called the suggestions “hurtful.”
Well, boo-fricking-hoo, Dan. Do you really want to know what's hurtful? Having to listen to you bob and weave and pretend you knew nothing. Having to sit there and listen to the relentless stream of unmitigated bullshit that comes out of your mouth, with you operating under the assumption that if you’re saying it, we must believe it to be true, because after all, you’re the great Dan Akerson, and we’re not.
Instead, it's an outrageous insult to everyone's intelligence who ever played this game (except to those you favored and promoted, of course).
That's right, Dan, you, the Unctuous Prick who openly loathed every last inch of this business to its core, and who regularly regaled your buddies on how just backward, unseemly and pathetic the auto business really was.
You, the guy who insulted the hard-working people of GM on a regular basis and in such condescending fashion that the common refrain I heard from seasoned, talented individuals throughout the corporation was that you were an abject embarrassment that they wished would just go away.
You, who had so little respect for the history of this business or the people who came before you that you dismissed it all with a wave of the hand as being inconsequential and irrelevant, that you and your Telecommies had more smarts in your fingernails than anyone in this town or in this business would ever accumulate.
You, who professed your "love" for this city while not once living here, instead parachuting in to the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel when you had to be here while having your Chief PR Bagman, Selim Bingol (aka Unctuous Prick Jr.), try to paste together the story that you were a "car guy" who was just trying to do what was best for the company, because clearly the “little people” laboring there didn’t have a clue.
You, who held such little regard for the complexities of the business that you once bragged to an underling, "You could run product development, hell, I could run product - it's not that hard."
You, who followed that up by promoting Bob Ferguson - GM's Chief lobbyist, of all things - to run the Cadillac Division globally, even though he had not one shred of perspective or qualification to do so, saying in not so subtle fashion that he was a smart guy and he wasn't one of "them" - meaning one of the poor unfortunates who make up the backbone of this business who were toiling away at the company while you preened and pranced before them spewing insults in their direction.
How did all that work out for you, Dan?
The High-Octane Truth of the matter is that the company survived in spite of you. Those people whom you insulted and treated so condescendingly on a daily basis? Those True Believers are solely responsible for the product hits that GM has in the market today.
It certainly wasn’t you, Dan, not by a long shot. Let’s not forget that you were plucked from boardroom obscurity by the most incompetent board in corporate America because you had the temerity to raise your hand in a board meeting when the subject of running the company came up, and you deluded yourself somehow into thinking that happenstance was a mandate of some sort that simply didn't exist.
That “Accidental Tourist of a CEO” moniker? You earned it and everyone knew it. You’re just lucky that GM’s board was so singularly incompetent, because if a boardroom coup could have been properly mounted, you would have been toast and you know it. You had only a handful of supporters and even fewer defenders. The rest? You misconstrued those smiles as meaning people actually liked you. No, Dan, they loathed you, and they did what they had to do to get by, which meant marking their desk calendars daily with big a red “X” praying that this would be the day that you would finally leave.
You were a walking-talking embarrassment from the get-go, simply a ridiculous spectacle fueled by a maniacal, runaway ego that knows no bounds, a Captain Queeg for a new age, couching everything in juvenile, bombastic, militaristic banter that had Navy people writing me embarrassed that you were dragging your naval background into the proceedings.
You are the quintessential definition of a carpetbagger. You had no affinity for the business or the people who worked in it whatsoever. You dismissed this industry as a backwater embarrassment and you were just biding your time until you could find something better, hoping there was a huge payday at the end. Instead, you made your escape back to Private Equity before the shit hit the fan. Nicely done.
"Terrible person"? That moniker happens to fits you to a "T", Akerson.
Now, please do us all a favor and shut up. (“THE UNCTUOUS PRICK RETURNS FOR ONE LAST HURRAH.” – July 30, 2014)
Which of course begs the multi-billion-dollar question: How is it that a company with the ability to spend almost $2.5 billion in marketing and advertising annually can’t seem to market its way out of a paper bag? How is it that a company that is producing some of the best American cars ever built is floundering and sputtering in the market, hemorrhaging market share at a prodigious rate? And to add further insult to injury, how is it that a company of GM’s size is still devoid of a Chief Marketing Officer, when all signs indicate that it is in desperate need of one?
These essential questions get right at the heart of this business. When an automobile company focuses on the product and then executes those products to an exceptional degree, good things usually happen. Building great products not only builds confidence within the organization, it builds confidence with its dealers as well, and a none-too-subtle pattern emerges where confidence breeds success in the market, and it can grow exponentially from there.
And adding great marketing to this equation goes hand in hand. It’s much easier to market products that you can be proud of and not apologize for. It energizes everyone to do better and aim higher. Not with GM, apparently. Instead, serial incompetence reigns.
GM and its recent “leadership” squandered a golden opportunity to make the company competitive for years to come. The market share lost is simply unconscionable and inexcusable, and the reality is that it may never come back. (“A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED.” – August 5, 2014)
It’s an entirely new dimension of pathetic when it comes right down to it. This came, of course, after The Great Sergio had firmly established his glowing reputation by expertly taking credit for the hot-selling Jeeps and Dodge Ram Trucks (yeah, I said Dodge, get over it) that were flying out the door, embellishing Sergio’s saintliness with each passing month. You remember Jeep and Ram Truck, don’t you? The two vehicles solely responsible for the latest “miracle” resurrection of Chrysler? The vehicles that the True Believers out in Auburn Hills were actually responsible for?
Sergio would like everyone to focus on him rather than dredge up those annoying details, after all, when you’re purported to be able to walk on water, why bring up the poor wretches manning the oars in the galley? And knowing all of that, is it really all that surprising that The Great Sergio really stepped in it last week on a conference call with the media when he came out and said that suppliers’ double-digit profit margins were out of line? No, not at all, especially if you take into account the full depth and breadth of his almost limitless capacity for egomaniacal self-delusion.
Marchionne actually had the audacity to say - while referring to automotive suppliers that Chrysler does business with - that he needs “to find a way that we can at least participate in their well-being, and perhaps allow them to rub off some of their newfound wealth onto us…” The ensuing shit storm was like a bomb going off.
To their credit, the suppliers shot back, as reported by Automotive News: “Sergio needs to run his company as well as his suppliers are running theirs,” said Neil De Koker, the recently retired chairman of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association. “He wants to be the customer of choice for suppliers. He wants them to bring their best technology to them, and it will take supplier profitability to develop the technology Chrysler needs to reach the 54.5 mpg fuel standards that are coming. We won’t get there by taking money from each other,” De Koker said.
The only good thing about Sergio putting his foot in his mouth - yet again - is that it appears that he's finally used the last shred of faux goodwill accumulated from his press clippings and has been exposed for what he well and truly is: A carpetbagging opportunist who really is incapable of running a company once the deals are made. (A NEW DIMENSION OF PATHETIC.” – August 13, 2014)
We’re here so therefore we must be hip, right? Right? By being part of the scene at Pebble Beach during Monterey Car Week, the manufacturers all believe that they can orchestrate their brand “visions” to a fare-thee-well, that they can create wonderfully rich tapestries and orchestrate idyllic impressions that they can’t do anywhere else, and that the results far outweigh the staggering costs associated with doing it. And it’s all unmitigated bullshit too.
The danger of high-wire image wrangling for these luxury auto manufacturers is that the desired impact is fleeting. With luxury auto manufacturer after luxury auto manufacturer having set up camp in Monterey for years now, the creep of sameness wafts over the proceedings in a tedious dance unfolding to the beat of we’ve seen it all before. And that’s because we have seen it all before.
And yet, inevitably with each new year a new manufacturer arrives on the scene who is aching to belong to “the club,” actually believing that they will somehow be different, that they will bring something to the party that no one has seen before, that by being there they will finally ascend to the glorified strata of manufacturers that matter.
Too bad it doesn’t work that way. After a while the manufacturer villages and compounds – or even worse, the midway at The Quail, which has turned into a high-level huckster paradise – tend to blend together in one giant ball of indistinguishable marketing come-ons.
It’s the same exact positioning (even though every manufacturer insists that they are different), it’s the same overused executional tactics, it’s the same “serene settings” and “sublimely luxurious immersions,” and it’s the same damn story from every single manufacturer, no matter how hard they try and no matter how much they insist that they truly have it all goin’ on. And they’re kidding themselves if they think it’s any different than that.
When does it end? Probably not anytime soon. That’s because there’s a decided lack of genuinely bold and visionary thinking coming from the marketers at these manufacturers. They do most of everything they do because they’re afraid that if they don’t that they will somehow miss it. But when they don’t have a clue as to what “it” is, this obligatory dance of sameness and predictability will go on indefinitely. (“STRANGE DAYS.” – August 20, 2014)
What will Marchionne do? Ramp-up Ferrari production, of course (something his predecessor would never do) and start using Ferrari bits and pieces to prop-up Maserati and Alfa Romeo. Will Marchionne’s plan negatively affect the Ferrari brand? We will have to see, but I would argue that the decline has already begun. There are too many Ferrari “worlds” catering to tourists, too much Ferrari merchandise and too much of, well, everything with the Ferrari logo on it.
At one point Ferrari was the most desirable and exclusive high-performance brand in the world, a brand that stood above the rest with a passion that resonated and a studied arrogance that was purposeful and carefully calculated. Not everyone could afford one, which was exactly the point. And the automotive world was comfortable with that.
But it’s a different world now. That democratization of luxury and technology I spoke about earlier? It has let the genie out of the bottle, and now every automaker can dial-up a set of ingredients and say that they’re ready to play in the rarefied atmosphere that was once the exclusive domain of Ferrari.
I can assure you that Marchionne – the consummate mercenary - isn’t interested in any of what has come before him. He knows better and he knows best – just ask him - and if he can squeeze out another 4,500 units for Ferrari, so be it. The profits are too good and the brand will survive, in his estimation.
But Ferrari was never, ever supposed to be just another “me too” car company swimming in a pool with the rest of the brands. It was always special and a cut above. It looks like those days are gone forever now, and it really is too bad. The next trend I’ll be watching for in this business? The democratization of stupidity. (“THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF STUPIDITY.” – September 15, 2014)
“This is just like television, only you can see much further.” You’d think there would be a CEO finishing school of some kind, but no, people ascend to the title in all kinds of interesting ways. There are the dutiful soldiers who, after 40 years of saying, “thank you, sir, may I have another” and having taken every shitty assignment dumped on them with a smile, finally get “the call” and get to be CEO for a couple of years before they ride off into the sunset muttering to themselves, “Wow, did that just happen?”
Then there are the mercurial plotters and schemers, the ones who have wanted to be CEOs since they were in high school. Every move they have made to get to the top was a series of calculations and risks. Yes, there may have been setbacks along the way, but by the time these movers ascend to the throne they’re smugly saying, “I was born to do this.”
Then there are the corporate carpetbaggers whose mercenary zeal is only eclipsed by their massive, out-of-control egos. They may have not been born to do it, but they will seize every opportunity thrust upon them if it serves their purpose. And what is that purpose, exactly? To accumulate as much power and riches as they can in as short a time as possible. That the whole “what would be best for the company?” discussion gets lost in the shuffle is just so much collateral damage that they can’t be bothered with.
Today’s automotive landscape features a kaleidoscope of CEOs and CEOs-in-waiting of varying types, from the sublimely competent to the maliciously incompetent, and everything in-between. If you’ve read my columns long enough you can probably discern the good from the bad, and the exceptional from the marginal.
And there are some whom I haven’t written about, at least not yet anyway, who will soon have their turn in the barrel. These are from the Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardener Being There CEO school. They’re there, but not really there. They speak, but remarkably enough, say nothing. And they wake up praying every day that they don’t get found out. But I digress. (“BEING THERE.” – September 24, 2014)
Needless to say, the clock is ticking... But I can't stress enough that Cadillac must be allowed to be Cadillac. It is one of the great luxury brands in the world, but one in desperate need of nurturing and polishing. That means it needs to go its own way in design, engineering and how it goes about its business. Yes, having a design point of view is an accomplishment for Cadillac, one that has been hard fought and well executed. But surrendering to one of its chief competitors when it comes to naming its vehicles is a rote reaction that's just plain nonsensical and stupid. It also means that a complete and intensive reeavaluation/overhaul of the marketing function has to be undertaken. Cadillac marketing has stumbled around in fits and starts for years. For every well-executed TV spot that surfaces, there are three that land like a thud. And advertising a lease deal as your default setting in the market has never been a value-added activity, but Cadillac has been addicted to it and that has to stop too. It might appease the dealers in the short term, but it is long-term brand suicide. (“CADILLAC SWINGS FOR THE FENCES, AND…” – October 1, 2014)
Honda was at once inspired and inspiring in this business, and Acura was supposed to be the best of Honda, so what happened? Mediocrity happened. And corporate conservatism swallowed the Honda mindset whole. And Acura suffered exponentially because of it. Yesterday’s brilliant Acura NSX and hot Integra models gave way to a mind-numbing parade of forgettable sedans and crossovers wrapped in uninspired sheet metal that said nothing about “the best of Honda.” Instead, they said everything about filling a segment in a rote dance of being present and accounted for in the market, and little else. Oh, there were exceptions in the ensuing years, but you get the point. Honda had abandoned its sense of urgency to create and innovate, and instead careened around the market acting like everyone else, or worse - as in Acura’s case - as a follower, something that was anathema to Honda’s glorious past. (“CHASING GHOSTS OF LEGENDS PAST.” – October 15, 2014)
PR brawlers, really? It may be surprising to some who are new to the whole Public Relations game, but the inner workings of big-league PR are usually in direct contrast to the rigidly controlled, politically correct images that PR handlers so carefully craft for their CEO charges.
Behind the scenes it’s a back-alley brawl stopping just short – but not always, I might add – from fisticuffs. Depending on the day, PR handlers in the car biz fight with journalists, editors, TV news show producers, other PR handlers from rival car companies, professional company irritants, pitchfork-wielding anti-car safety advocates and environmental groups, and an assortment of “vermin” – as they see it – who come out of the woodwork to threaten their boss, or the company, or both.
The modern PR handler’s array of weaponry includes scathing email diatribes and verbal threats, political maneuvers and story plants carried out through mainstream and social media platforms, and good old-fashioned finger jabs to the chest delivered in person, just to name a few. (“SHARP TONGUES AND SHARPER ELBOWS, THE ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE WORLD OF MODERN PR LIVE AND IN COLOR.” – October 22, 2014)
When it begins rolling off of the assembly line today (Veteran's Day), the new F-150 will be a technical tour de force, employing advanced technologies, innovations and learnings - far beyond the obvious advantages of the aluminum structure - that for its specific mission and capabilities will make it every bit as impressive in its own right as the new Corvette Z06 is. That is not a flippant statement, either. Ask anyone in this business about the steep technical climb involved in making a vehicle of substantial mass dynamically perform yet still fulfill its workhorse role and they will tell you that those challenges are immense. As I've said before, the Mustang may represent the "soul" of the Ford Motor Company but the F-150 is indeed "The Franchise." The success of the Dearborn-based automaker will be determined by the success of the F-150, pure and simple. (“GOING LONG IN THE AUTOVERSE.” – November 12, 2014)
We don’t need no stinkin’ marketing “geniuses.” So while the attendant media hordes get their fix of industry auto juice in L.A., with nary a discouraging word being reported and not even a mention or even a hint of storm clouds on the horizon - it's an all blue-sky world after all - auto executives will escape with their egos and their vacuous promises intact, confident that they do indeed have it goin' on when in fact it couldn't be further from the truth. Ugh.
At any rate, there's a particular subset of delusion among industry executives that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the rampant mediocrity that seems to have overrun this business, and nowhere is that delusion more pronounced than with the marketing executives who are inevitably front and center at these auto shows.
Not all, but too many of these marketing "geniuses" would have you believe that they have descended from the Mystical Mountaintop, burdened with an intellect that is far beyond the scope of the mere mortals that they have to contend with every day back at headquarters. And it's such a trial, don't you know. From these "genius" marketers' perspective, the company would be so much better off and the world would be such a beautiful place if everyone would just acquiesce to their wishes, because after all they do know what's best for the enterprise and they will take the company to the Promised Land of market share increases, if left unfettered and free.
As I said, the propensity for delusion knows no bounds with these Super Marketers, but as in all things in this business, the reality of their actions and misdeeds leaves a lot to be desired. (“MARKETING "GENIUSES" AND OTHER FALLACIES OF THE CAR BUSINESS.” – November 19, 2014)
The Best or Nothing, right? Now, it should be noted that when it comes to strolling marketing "geniuses" combined with profound arrogance and unrivaled delusional thinking, no one tops the legacy of the bumblers at Mercedes-Benz. These people have accumulated a track record of mindless marketing flubs that would merit their own wing in the Marketing Stupidity Hall of Fame, if there were one. So, at the L.A. Auto Show this week, the marketing "geniuses" at Mercedes-Benz are out to fix things over the whole sordid Maybach mess. And their solution? They're introducing something called the Mercedes-Maybach S600, an extra-long-wheelbase version of its new S-Class that will get custom interior trim and will be priced above the S600. I find it oddly comforting that Mercedes executives are being true to their school here, in a stupid is as stupid does kind of way. – (November 19, 2014)
And so it goes. I'd like to be able to gleefully report about the rays of light entering the car marketing world, that it's the dawn of a new era in enlightened, visionary marketing with smart people coming to the fore who are making great decisions and unleashing memorable marketing on the American landscape. But alas, no such luck. We're on a train running headlong into the darkness on a midnight run through the mountain passes of marketing mediocrity. The occasional flickers of light are brief and fleeting, quickly extinguished by the next tunnel. - (November 19, 2014)
Cadillac is at odds with itself and it’s excruciating to watch. On the one hand the True Believers are building outstanding machines, with the new ATS-V being just the latest example of the commitment, dedication and passion for excellence that fuels the people who are delivering the goods for the Cadillac brand.
On the other hand we have the Cadillac marketers, being led down the primrose path by Ms. Lee and her ilk, pathetic in their shallowness and shockingly incompetent when it comes to having the first clue as to how to create an honest aura of desirability and substance for the brand.
I keep waiting for the light to go on for someone, anyone at GM marketing, especially when it comes to Cadillac. Yes, I get it, Cadillac is supposed to be its own entity within the GM universe now, and that’s all well and good, but this kind of ridiculous behavior in the name of marketing hipness is just plain pathetic. (“AT ODDS WITH ITSELF, INSIPIDNESS REIGNS AT CADILLAC.” – November 26, 2014)
Marketing Hell, 101. So what do we have here exactly with this so-called “new” Cadillac? We have smart, but misguided individuals pretending they don’t sell luxury cars. And apparently we have to listen to this endless proselytizing until we 1. Just ignore it altogether, or 2. It dawns on somebody in Jackson Square that maybe pretending we’re not in the car business is, ahem, a little stupid.
Do you think Bentley execs sit around wondering if they’re in the car business or not? Not a chance. They are purveyors of some of the most desirable luxury automobiles in the world, and they’re quite comfortable in that role. As a matter of fact, it’s what they do best.
The only thing Cadillac executives seem to be comfortable with is talking about what they’re not, instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the real business at hand.
And what was that again?
Oh, right, it should be about building some of the finest luxury cars in the world, stylishly avant-garde machines bristling with a distinctive and compelling point of view that proudly wear the Cadillac name. Instead we have a bunch of entitled provocateurs telling us that that they’re not actually in the luxury car business, but purveyors of luxury, and we will all be bathed in the light of their brilliance real soon. This is going nowhere good, and in a hurry. (“ENTITLED PROVOCATEURS AND OTHER TALES FROM MARKETING HELL.” – December 3, 2014)
And that, faithful readers, is the High-Octane Truth for 2014.
Every once in a while I think it’s an excellent idea to take a step back and remind people what this publication is all about. Last August, in a column entitled The Autoextremist Manifesto, Refueled, I did exactly that. At the time I said it was good for the mind, it clears the air and it provides a moment of clarity for the lost souls wandering around in the automotive wilderness, the ones who can’t seem to separate the real from the imagined, or the pipe dreams from what’s truly important.
I find most of the confusion lies with the unfortunates who have managed to create their own very special fantasies about their place in this motorized circus. Because some of you out there seem to get confused, or some of you let your self-appointed “insider” view – which is loosely based on a remarkable propensity for self-delusion when it comes to your place in the automotive world – get in the way. Which is inherently sad, because learning to live in world of disappointment must be a particularly tedious cross to bear, but I digress.
As I’ve said repeatedly, this business isn’t for the faint of heart. And though it seems that there are legions of recalcitrant twerps, two-bit hacks and spineless weasels running around out there who add nothing of import to the discussion and who pump up their self-worth for reasons that remain a mystery, the real essence of the business remains unsullied.
When we first contemplated doing Autoextremist, I wrote a manifesto for what it was and what it was not. It seems like a good time to update it, because some of you out there, as I said, seem to be confused.
First things first, and that is that designing, engineering and building automobiles is one of the most complicated endeavors on earth. And to do it properly takes vision, creativity and an unwavering passion that makes other pursuits seem positively ordinary.
Note that there is nothing in there about doing it just good enough to get by, engineering to the lowest common denominator, covering your ass or any of the other pillars of “standard operating procedure” that once dominated certain quarters of this business and have been, for the most part, purged.
Except that isn’t really true, unfortunately. All the bad old habits are still present and accounted for and then some, and as much as reasoned, logical and eminently bright executives in charge at these auto companies protest otherwise and insist that “we don’t do that stuff anymore,” that kind of bad behavior is just a bad product or marketing decision away from rearing its ugly head, and usually at the most inopportune time too.
That’s what we do here in this publication, in case you haven’t noticed. We expose the go-along-to-get-along, kick-the-can-down-the-road hordes on a regular basis, because the damage they cause can bring these companies to their knees in a heartbeat. Do you really need to be reminded of the devastating effects of this kind of behavior, or haven’t you heard about GM’s little recall problem?
This is a key point in the Autoextremist Manifesto, because it resonates throughout this business. This just in: Mediocrity – in any way, shape or form – isn’t bliss. Instead, it’s an insidious disease that has not only decimated this industry, it has screwed up life as we used to know it too.
At some point this business – and American life – turned down the wrong path. Pushing the envelope, getting knocked down and picking yourself back up and going at it again, battling to the buzzer, and striving for achievement were part and parcel of the upward trajectory of the automobile business - and country - we used to live in. Achieving greatness wasn’t just a goal, it was an expectation to shoot for, because anything less would be, well, ordinary. And even worse, boring.
Today this business has too often given way to an unspoken attitude of just doing enough to get by because when it comes right down to it, judging by the chorus of muttering I hear, doing more begs the question, “Does it really make all that much difference?” Fundamental accountability has been replaced by “It’s not my problem.” And “It’s okay, at least you tried” has become more than just an acceptable phrase, but a mantra that too many people live by. After all, when everyone gets a group hug and a trophy just for showing up, why bother extending effort to do better, or achieve greatness, or strive to be the best?
Why bother, indeed.
The result? Abject mediocrity. And it’s everywhere. It’s in this business and it’s rampant throughout the country. Some people have actually said to me (and with a straight face too), “Get over it, it’s the world we live in today.” But I’m not buying it and it is simply unacceptable to me, which is why I will continue to call people and companies out on it whenever and wherever I see it. It’s not a value-added path for this business, and it’s already proven not to be the answer for the country, either.
The stellar machines of our day – and we are living in the golden age of automotive greatness in case you haven’t noticed – aren’t the product of “it’s good enough.” Instead these machines bristle with the passion, vision and commitment of the men and women who created them, those “True Believers” that I often write about. If it weren’t for them, this business would be riding on the Last Train to Nowhere, next stop, Oblivion.
Railing against mediocrity and mediocrity “creep” is an essential component of the Autoextremist Manifesto. And it’s not confined to the designing, engineering and building of automobiles, unfortunately.
The marketers at these car companies can be wildly suspect as well, too often taking the easy way out when the situation is just aching for a bold move. That they often end up taking the road frequently traveled rather than risk ruffling some feathers, even though their gut tells them the results will be well worth it, is a sad commentary. Are there exceptions and exceptional people involved in the marketing functions at these companies? Yes, absolutely. But the predominant mode is repackaged tedium, and it stinks.
And let’s not forget the media, because mediocrity is prevalent there too. In fact I maintain a reservoir of intense loathing for certain journalists on the auto beat who blithely sleepwalk through their coverage, performing rote regurgitations spoon-fed from the company PR staffs and calling it news (or even worse, writing) because after all, going-along-to-get-along is a lot easier than having their oftentimes clueless editors field a phone call from an irate PR vice president who is upset about a story.
Ever wonder why there’s sameness to the coverage of the auto business? That you can plug and play stories from one publication to another and not see any difference? There’s a reason for it. It’s a lot easier to cover the auto companies the way they want you to, because going against the grain is difficult. And then bad things happen to those who don't toe the line.
Thankfully, there’s no danger of that happening here. Going against the grain is our specialty, it’s what we do best and why you keep coming back. I don’t say what people want me to say, in fact, as much as the mediocrity-brandishing hordes (oh, you know who you are, the self-important hacks clinging to their little piece of the pie – and their dubious titles - by their fingernails, hoping to get out before being exposed for the worthless parasites they truly are, and of course the spineless weasels who continue to wreak their particular brand of righteous intransigence and havoc to the detriment of companies everywhere. Yeah, you) who are so protective of their pathetic little fiefdoms want me to sit down and be quiet – for good – the likelihood of that happening is slim. And none.
As a matter of fact I’ve got really bad news for those who so wish I would just go away, because the Autoextremist Manifesto has been refueled and powered-up to a new level of intensity.
You won’t find restrictor plates, aero matching or “spec” anything around here.
For many, the kind of unflinching commentary that we specialize in is like a tonic for the soul in this swirling maelstrom of shit masquerading as the world we live in today.
As for the rest of you? Well, it’s quite simple: You can’t handle the High-Octane Truth.
In a closing note, this has been a long year for us here at AE for a lot of reasons, and we’re frankly elated that it’s over.
We hope that 2015 is all it can possibly be and then some for all of you out there, and we wish you all a healthy and happy New Year.
We’ll see you back here in January.