GM: Death of an American dream
General Motors was the Great American Company. But by clinging to the attributes that made it an icon, GM drove itself to ruin.
作者：Alex Taylor III
Back in 2004, when it was still relatively flush, General Motors invited automotive journalists to the South of France for a three-day "global product seminar." The idea was that writers like me would drive new cars, consume loads of free food and wine, pal around with executives, and develop favorable opinions about GM.
Still a little jet-lagged, I arranged to drive with chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner in a yellow Corvette. Our route would take us from the Four Seasons resort in Provence, where we were staying, through the French countryside and on to the Paul Ricard race circuit near Marseille in time for lunch. My job was to navigate while Wagoner drove, but I used the face time to pepper him with questions rather than pay attention to the route book.
Polite and good-humored as usual, Wagoner mostly ignored my directions and followed the car in front of us. Two hours later we found ourselves back at the hotel. I had been navigating from the wrong map, and the car in front of us, driven by Chinese journalists, was just as lost as we were. Lunch would be delayed while we hurriedly made our way to the track, meaning I had effectively kidnapped the chairman of General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) for three hours.
Sure, we had been tailed the whole time by Wagoner's security detail, but it remained behind at a respectful distance and never stopped to ask us where we were going. What I learned from the incident were several things.
First, never underestimate the ability of a know-it-all journalist to get it wrong. And second, at some point good manners and civility become a liability rather than an asset.
After three decades of covering the auto industry, I've learned that Ford (F, Fortune 500) executives tend to be scrappers skilled at bare-knuckle office politics, while the top brass at Chrysler traffic in bravado and charisma. Not at GM. Guys like Wagoner set the tone: smart, sincere, diligent - modern-day Eagle Scouts.
But in working for the largest company in the industry for so long, they became comfortable, insular, self-referential, and too wedded to the status quo - traits that persist even now, when GM is on the precipice. They prefer stability over conflict, continuity over disorder, and GM's way over anybody else's. They believe that hard work will overcome adversity, and that tomorrow will be better than today - despite four decades of evidence to the contrary.
Is bankruptcy the best way to get GM back on the road? Tell us what you think.
In many ways the story of General Motors since the 1960s is a tale of accelerating irrelevance. Customer preferences changed, competition tightened, technology made big leaps, and GM was always driving a lap behind. It became a red-state company, its Buicks and Pontiacs seldom seen in California or New York City. GM has been losing market share in the U.S. since the 1960s, destroying capital for years, and returning no share price appreciation to investors.
I've had a chance to watch all this up close as a business journalist for the past 32 years, including 23 at Fortune. Over the years the company has tried to reform itself any number of times, but it has been doomed by what once made it successful: doing it the GM way. Ask Rick Wagoner why GM isn't more like Toyota (TM), and he'd tell you, "We're playing our own game - taking advantage of our own unique heritage and strengths."
Turns out GM should have forgotten that and become more like Toyota. Toyota's market cap is now $103.6 billion; GM's is $1.8 billion. I've visited GM operations in Japan, China, Germany, Brazil, and Chile, not to mention the U.S. I've attended auto shows, product launches, technical background sessions, and news conferences, in addition to interviewing legions of GM executives, analysts, and consultants. Looking back, three relatively recent events signaled the depth of the problems that have overwhelmed the company.