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Clueless in the Motor City.

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Clueless in the Motor City.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 3/8, 6:30PM) Detroit. No one could miss the headline screaming “Whitacre wants more sales – NOW!” on the top of the front page in this week’s Automotive News. And as the story attempted to flesh out Big Ed’s growing impatience with the whole “sluggish sales” quandary that continues to vex GM – and the reassignment and in some cases jettisoning of sales and marketing executives – and after observing the day-to-day chaos that seems to define GM of late, I’m getting the distinct impression that Whitacre still doesn’t have a clue as to what he’s dealing with here in the auto biz.

So I thought I’d give Big Ed a few pointed reminders...

Dear Ed:

I’m sure you’ve figured this out about now, but just in case you haven’t, this business isn’t about consolidating “Baby” Bells, or fixin’ to make deals, or playing phone and cable customers off against each other, either. And it’s not about packaging cable, phone and Internet service into tidy little bundles that people can deal with by the month, at the expense of a competitor you want to bury.

No, Ed, this business has been distilled down to the fundamental reality of trying to get people to forget 25 years of rampant mediocrity, when the Detroit automakers - and especially GM - squandered their rich, historical legacy of putting this nation on wheels, forging the arsenal of democracy, and becoming the shining beacon of American industrial might by unleashing a series of crappy vehicles that – except for a very few noteworthy instances – were not only stunning in their lack of imagination, originality and vision, but were equally stunning for their horrifying lack of quality.

It was during this time, Ed, that the American consumer became painfully aware that for the most part the Detroit automakers really didn’t give a $h! about them, and when they went looking elsewhere – at the Toyotas, Hondas, BMWs and Nissans of the world, et al – in many cases they found excellent vehicles that were screwed together properly and offered good value. And for most of them that was more than enough and they never looked back.

As a matter of fact, they put the Detroit automakers entirely off of their radar screens for a generation and a half, only encountering domestic-made cars at the car rental lots at airports or in taxi cabs in big cities. It’s so bad, Ed, that there are households all across the land that have never had a domestic-sourced vehicle in their driveway. Ever.

And given the realities of this situation all you can bring to the table is your impatience? I know being an “outsider” can be terribly difficult, Ed. I’ve seen countless executives from other industries who got here before you, who not long after were either forced to leave or who left of their own volition, muttering under their breath as their planes lifted off the tarmac at Metro Airport never to return.

Much to most outsiders’ chagrin, this is the most complicated, relentlessly unforgiving, perilously difficult business on the face of the earth. I’m sure you like to point to other industries that you consider to be equally difficult but I would beg to differ. No business combines the depth and breadth of challenges that the auto business does. Why do you think so many outsiders flat-out fail and turn tail?

Not that I’m condemning all “outsiders” to this industry to a pile of hopeless irrelevance - after all, Alan Mulally gets it but then again we know now that he’s a once-in-a-lifetime executive who will go down in the 100+ year history of this business as truly one of the all-time greats.

But saying that, where does that leave you?

I’m afraid that leaves you in the corner of the “finger-snap” experts, Ed, the ones whom I have found to be the most loathsome over the years. The ones who show up with an attitude that suggests that this business can’t possibly be all that complicated, right? The ones who believe that if they were stars in their chosen avocations, then why not here and why not now? The ones who actually believe – at least for a fleeting moment in time – that all of this mess can be fixed with a finger snap. Just. Like. That.

For your information, Ed, two shining examples who bristled with that attitude almost ran GM right into the ground a decade earlier. And after John Smale and Ron Zarrella – and their hand-picked acolytes - got through unleashing their brand of P&G mumbo-jumbo on GM, the company was almost left for dead, a lifeless carcass festering by the side of the road

Not that I’m equating you with those two, Ed, but you must admit the tone and tempo are eerily similar. The impression that you know better than anyone about what needs to be done, discounting everyone who came before you and every painfully hard lesson learned. Believing that if you rearrange the deck chairs just so it will all come good overnight as if by magic. Or believing that the good times are just around the corner, just you wait and see.

And what if that doesn’t happen, Ed? Are you just going to stomp your feet until the sales trajectory starts pointing in an upward direction? In other words, you’re going to will it to happen, is that it?

Well, I can safely say at this point that it doesn’t work that way, Ed, and I’m getting the distinct impression that you clearly don’t have a clue at to what you’re talking about, no matter how many “aw shucks, I’m just a nice guy trying to help y’all out” platitudes you spread around.

At this point - and in case you don’t realize it, we’re talking desperation time here, Ed - this business is about recapturing the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands American consumers who got let down by the “bad old days” when Detroit was at its worst.

And you’re not going to do that overnight.

It’s going to take people being drawn into your showrooms by the pure excellence of your vehicles, a level of excellence that can no longer be ignored by your critics, the media or consumers on the street.

And then once you lure these consumers into your showrooms, they need to be pleasantly surprised by switched-on dealers who get it and who understand what this whole “putting the customer first” thing is all about.

And then should you be so fortunate as to have some of these consumers actually choose to drive out with an Equinox, an SRX Turbo, a Malibu, a LaCrosse or an Enclave, etc. - and over the entire time they own that vehicle absolutely nothing can go wrong with it. Not even a misaligned cupholder. Not even anything.

And during that time, if when asked by their friends and neighbors they say nothing but good things about their vehicles, that’s when the word-of-mouth “buzz” begins – still the most powerful form of advertising there is – and then you will begin to gain real traction in the market, the kind that has eluded GM for so long.

And finally, when that consumer has to consider getting a new vehicle three or four years down the road - and he or she comes back to get another GM vehicle - then you’ll really know, Ed. Then you can safely say that GM is reaching the customer again and that the ugly past is fading away.

Again, that’s not going to happen overnight, Ed. No, in fact it’s going to be a l-o-n-g drawn-out slog fraught with myriad opportunities for things to go horribly wrong.

So you can throw your tantrums and snap your fingers and demand results, but I hate to break it to you, it’s not going to make one damn bit of difference.

GM needs to exceed the competition in all respects to even get a place at the consideration table. Not gain market share mind you, Ed, but just to get a place at the consideration table. There’s a huge difference between the two, at least I hope you can see that by now.

That means it will come down to the people who know the business and understand what it takes to succeed. And that means people like Mark Reuss, Ed Welburn and Tom Stephens leading their troops into battle with a laser focus and unwavering purpose. And that means that the “new” GM must deliver extraordinarily compelling designs, boldly remarkable engineering, surgically precise manufacturing, top levels of quality (not among the best, but top), a flawlessly seamless dealer experience, and do so consistently day-in, day-out without hiccups, missteps, interruptions or horror stories.

Anything less, Ed, and it’s game over for you and GM.

In closing, I have a suggestion: Seeing as I don’t believe you’re bringing anything of value to the table other than the occasional exhortation of the troops for the “I’m large and in charge” window-dressing effect, I suggest you settle into a more suitable role as official company “greeter.” You know, the guy that GM PR can trot out to functions and photo opportunities and who can throw out the “aw shucks” platitudes about the “new” GM with vigor.

It’s not a bad assignment when you think about it, especially with your financial package keeping you comfy and cozy hard by the RenCen. (I mean we know it’s just play money and all to you but it’s nice to know you’re covered at least.)

Because the harsh reality of the situation, Ed, is that you clearly got nothin’ else to offer.

And being clueless in the Motor City has never been a good look.

That’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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