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When can GM, Chrysler re-engage the community?

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When can GM, Chrysler re-engage the community?

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

GRAND RAPIDS -- What's the proper role of corporate citizens in this post-crash era of jobless recovery?

And how about the personal involvement of corporate leaders in their communities, when in some cases -- General Motors, Chrysler and various banks -- the company and the government are the same thing?

For Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor, the answers come easily -- and with some passion.

"I certainly am committed" to Michigan and the Detroit region, he said Thursday. "I'm going to live here the rest of my life. My children were born here and hopefully they'll live here.

"So, it takes a perspective that this is really your home, and it's not just a place where you work," Ford told me in a telephone interview preceding a speech he is to deliver at the West Michigan Policy Forum in Grand Rapids today.

Ford rattled off the names of executives who he said are similarly engaged -- Roger Penske, DTE Chairman Tony Earley, Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig, Charter One Michigan Bank President Sandy Pierce and others.

What about General Motors and Chrysler?

Indeed, that's a common question these days in civic and philanthropic circles. Following their bankruptcies and government rescues, when will they re-engage in community affairs and at what levels?

Dan Akerson, GM's new CEO since Sept. 1, wasn't very specific when the topic came up Thursday in a session with reporters.

"I don't envision myself as a terribly high-profile individual," he said. "I do think that corporate America has a role in the social fabric of the communities they operate in. General Motors has a huge history and legacy in this city. I think that's important and something that we're proud of."

OK, but will GM resume its huge role in Detroit? The kind that led the massive Detroit riverfront makeover a few years ago? We don't know.

Chrysler, too, is a mystery nowadays, after having long been a major benefactor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a host of other causes. Even when Daimler owned Chrysler, CEO Dieter Zetsche took an active role in civic affairs, chairing the board of the Detroit Economic Club, just as Bill Ford does now.

There's no sign, however, that Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both Chrysler and alliance partner Fiat, will be that involved anytime soon.

None of this is meant to be critical of GM, Chrysler or their CEOs. The companies have been through hell; their futures remain uncertain. The world has changed and for Detroit and Michigan, that means corporate leadership must come from different places.

Part of that, Bill Ford said, is making a financial commitment. "We're putting $4 billion in new investment back into Michigan before the end of 2012 . To me, that's an important statement of intent in terms of our commitment to ensuring we have a strong state," he said.

"We have real assets here that other states don't have to really become a manufacturing powerhouse," Ford said of Michigan. But the state has to "get our fiscal house in order, and maybe make some changes in the tax code to make us more attractive."

Sounds like somebody who plans to be around for a while.

link:

http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100917/COL06/9170380/1331/Business01/When-can-General-Motors-Chrysler-re-engage-community&template=fullarticle

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