Whirlwind days at LA Auto Show…and for GM in more ways than one.

There are two aspects to the LA Auto Show that have captured my attention this year.  The first is the innovation that is emerging in sustainable energy (and I’ll have a post just on the green cars I enjoyed test driving.)  The second is the continual shakeup in the auto industy — this time at GM. 

By now, everyone knows that GM Pres, Fritz Henderson, was ousted by the board on Tuesday.  I was at a Chevrolet media event at the time, lagging behind after all the other media had left, talking to a PR woman I know at GM about innovations in social media, when all the executives were ushered away for an emergency confab.  And you knew by the urgency, that it was bad.  By the time they’d emerged, all white-faced,  I was already getting feeds regarding a GM press conference in a few minutes.  In a matter of minutes, the world knew that there had been another shake up at GM. 

From my position, next day, on the floor, listening to Bob Lutz’s (replacing Fritz Henderson as keynote — all the signboards papered over with Lutz’s name…ayay) excellent keynote address, to going from GM vehicle launch to vehicle launch, the execs did what they do best — smoothly and passionately presented their lines to the media.  But everyone could see the wind had been knocked out of their sails.  Hard to launch products when your leader has been sacked, which always means your own future becomes uncertain again.    To top things off, by the end of the day, there was a huge gaffuffle over the now infamous 58- word, expletive-filled posted comment allegedly by Henderson’s daughter (identity not confirmed) on the GM Facebook page, followed by a GM media spin.  Here is a good summary.  And if you really want to read the full comment: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/01/did-gm-ceo-fritz-henderso_n_376229.html

I’ll stop myself from going on a rant, but I do have a few more things to say.  I’ve experienced corporate drama, but not at this scale…and certainly not while sitting and watching it all unfold in front of me, an industry outsider.  Regardless of whether or not this was the right move, a good move, or a bad move, Henderson’s removal right at the start of the Auto show (and the car season) definitely knocked everyone off-balance. 

I wonder how it is possible that Mr. Henderson was sacked without the White House knowing about it, given our share in the company….makes me wonder if the good ole boys are retrenching themselves in the board?  When a company is so big, it is so easy to forget that the employees are the ones who are the real face of the company and not really quite as disposable as pawns on a chessboard.   Now the American people are a bit too invested to stand by and watch political manoueverings silently.

Personally, I root for success for GM.  Aside from the fact that I, along with all of you, am now heavily financially invested in its success, the products they are producing are really good (to my consumer eye).  Of course,  I’ll talk about some of the cars in following posts.  The thrill of coming as media to the show, is the opportunity to talk directly to the designers and product managers, who aim for transparency, who definitely have passion for their products, and who answer any question without hesitation (at least to me, they did.)    Overall, what I experienced was that it didn’t matter whether it was GM, Ford, Mercedes, BMW or any other company…the people who work for the car companies believe in their products and they all recognize that a huge mindset shift is not only taking  place, but has to take place.  Is there a far way to go?  Yes.  Decades.  But is the auto industry moving in the right direction?  Yes.

It isn’t possible to imagine the American car industry turning around the whole ship in a year or two.  Imagine the ship.  When you are a small, nimble company, yes, sure, you can spin on a dime.  See a big iceberg ahead?  You can easily steer around it because you don’t have big bulk to move.  But when you are as big as GM, or Ford, or Chrysler…to turn the ship,  you have to lay in the course and turn it one little tiny degree at a time…miles ahead of the iceberg.  Forget that thousands of people have been laid off at the carmakers.   What that has done is put the same massive amount of work on the shoulders of less people.  That doesn’t make a company more nimble…it just makes it leaner.  Focusing GM on fewer lines makes is leaner, and a bit more nimble…but still, to expect a company of this size to make seismic shifts in a nanosecond…won’t happen…fired President or no.  It will take years to redirect the ship and recognizing that, and making choices that will shape decades, is the direction that needs to be taken. 

Renewable energy, alternative fuel systems…that is the direction to go, and talking to the designers and engineers and product managers…it isn’t just the car companies that have to make the shift.  So the right direction is around the iceberg.  And not just the car companies.  Our entire culture, infrastructure and economy needs to move around the iceberg, a degree at a time.

2 thoughts on “Whirlwind days at LA Auto Show…and for GM in more ways than one.

  1. The ham handed manner in which executive succession has occurred at GM reminded me of another corporate debacle I got to witness first hand…

    (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROLM for reference)

    I was working at IBM Communication Systems Line of Business as an announcement coordinator, helping to promote all new product offerings from my division (about 400 products introduced while on my watch.)

    One of my special talents was arranging unbelievable demonstrations of IBM tech for the Press Announcement and other announcement events…we used to measure the demonstration by “how many people will die” to make it happen…that is, how many “person years” would be expended to make the very short timeframe from conception to delivery of a demonstration event (like 50 different presenters in a big room in NYC, demonstrating hardware and software platforms that wouldn’t even be shipping for 90 days or so, and had NEVER BEEN ATTACHED TO EACH OTHER BEFORE THE DEMO DAY!).

    So, I was around when IBM purchased ROLM, which had been the generator of the very first digital telephone system.

    By the time IBM bought it, ROLM had pretty much run it’s course, and, I believe the only quarter it made money was the very first one after IBM bought it.

    A few years later, I was at the ROLM site in Silicon Valley, interviewing to be the Demonstration Center Manager. I was eminently qualified, and actually scored a job offer.

    However…my manager at the time showed up on the very same day I was given the offer, and suggested I wait a day before making any decisions.

    The next morning, we were summoned to a meeting, with just about the entire ROLM employee force.

    The VP of our division, the one who purchased ROLM in the first place, gave a pitch laced with “nostalsia” about how ROLM and IBM had experienced whatever over the last few years. (She was, at the time, the most powerful woman executive in the world, with over 50,000 IBM employees reporting to her (responsible for 6BM revenue or so)…)

    Then, her boss, got up and basically told all the ROLMans they were being Sold to Siemens.

    Then the New German Owner of the division got up and expressed whatever in a heavy accent.

    You could hear a pin drop…and my manager and I exchanged our worry about the likelihood there were any guns in the audience…

    I believe, although it is now lost in the annals of time, IBM actually ended up PAYING SIEMENS to take ownership of ROLM, that’s how badly that product line was hemorrhaging!

    I declined the offer.

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