What I Would Do If I Could Save GM?

Onbrands emailed me a thoughtful response to my previous posting, along with a challenge:

…what would you say that Big Three need to do to win consumers back? Let’s say you are the CEO of GM, what is your plan to win consumers back?

Well, let’s assume that GM can be saved. Probably the biggest issue with betrayal is that people who have been betrayed cannot stand the existence of the betrayer and, if they have the power, will wipe the betrayer out of existence. Past that, there are serious questions about whether the company could even be saved now. Bankruptcy usually starts long before the actual financial collapse, and General Motors is no exception — inability/unwillingness to build small cars, an embraced blindness to quality issues, an inability to trim costs in management (heck, they ended up doing stuff that bloated the managerial ranks) that probably exacerbated its labor issues, and an inability/unwillingness to trim their system at all levels (laws made things hard, but that just meant they would have had to take a longer view than they were willing to do with the franchises), bizarre additions (HUMMER, anyone?). Add to that the nationwide hatred of and for General Motors, and you have a recipe for the death of an industry (and the celebration for that death — British Leyland may have been doomed, at least the British Automobile industry was properly mourned).

But…assuming they can be saved, here’s my prescription for what needs to be done to save GM:

  • Do not fear bankruptcy. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, and your situation is desperate.
  • Save what can be saved. I would save two brands right off the bat: Chevrolet, which even in its weakened state sells over 1/8th of the cars in the United States, and Cadillac as the high-end brand with a strong identity and marketplace acceptance.
  • Figure out what would make a good mid-level car company. The Pontiac/Buick/GMC attempt is a start, but it’s a bit clunky. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Oldsmobile name revived, as it has the feel of the family/middle class identity, unlike Pontiac (sporty), Saturn (oddball revolutionary-wannabee) or Buick (entry-level luxury). Maybe keep the Pontiac moniker to identify the more sporty versions of the brands, and the GMC model name actually makes sense for trucks sold outside the Chevy line.
  • Dump the rest of the brands. Saturn…off to the moon with you. Hummer…Fuck Off Goodbye. Buick outside of China…Goodbye. Saab…Here, Sweden; you deal with it.
  • Thin out your management ranks. Do you really need fifteen layers? Figure out a way to simplify things, maybe redevelop a form of your former structure where the companies had some independence and their own brands (instead of badges and cosmetic changes). The simplification of brands should help, and should force the shrinkage itself. I would also suggest focusing on cutting the bean-counters more than the others; as you seem to do that more than is healthy for a company.
  • Deal with the unions. A butchering in the Management ranks will make this easier, both in cutting down the scope of what you need to get from the Unions and in making the Union easier to deal with (When workers in power see a bloated bureaucracy asking for handouts from the workers, the workers most obviously fight back. Cut management fat and the deal gets easier, even if it’s from fear.).
  • Clean up the distribution network. The Saturn Dealerships will be easy to dump , but there needs to be a lot of cleanup. Also, you should push for a national set of rules for franchises instead of the 50 separate state rules which now make things hard to deal with.
  • Admit your mistakes to your public. You now do this on occasion under circumstances that make the public suspicious of your motives, maybe this time pound it in people’s head through advertising. A year of this as your main advertising line will at least make people think you’re really contrite over your past mistakes, unlike now when you do this when you hit us up with money or try to foist a guilt trip on us for buying Japanese/Korean/Euro brands instead of your stuff.
  • Mean the admission. Like what you did at Buick City when Michael Moore declared you were getting ready to close the factory and you turned around and worked at things until you made what was then the best car made in the USA (Buick LeSabre). Only this time make it company-wide, with every model and version of model. This will take years, keep it up and word will spread.
  • New blood in the management and design/engineering departments. Maybe during your cutbacks in management, you could overcut with the idea of hiring newer, brighter blood when the time came to refill the ranks. Again, add bean-counters only as to what’s needed. Focus on car lovers for your new hires.

It will take lots of money. Money that could easily go elsewhere, and thus will have to be justified.

And the sad thing about this? You could have probably gotten away with this back in 1990-1991, when you were in a similar position. You wouldn’t have needed to go so far in fixing yourself, either. Such mistakes as the Hummer or the Buick Rainier were still “in the future,” maybe they wouldn’t have been made. Fewer brands would have needed to be cut, maybe one or two (the more logical ones) instead of the holocaust now needed (assuming success).

But one must do now what one can. At least try to do it, anyway.

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Why People Hate GM Anyway (at least my reconing)

I was thinking recently over all the stories I had heard over the years why people chose Import brands (and if they were indeed imported, so much the better). And I counted nearly thirty different explanations, each one talking about a car they had five to twenty-five years ago that had something so wrong that they turned instead to the new car brand in town, or finally listened to that friend who had bragged about buying foreign (who would needle him mercilessly for a few weeks after buying the jap job). And there was always a reference to the “Union Workers Who Spent More Time Sleeping At Their Job Than Actually Putting The Cars Together(tm),” although usually it was added in as a slight extra justification.

So many stories, all with the idea of a single flaw (however big it may have been) being a reason to throw away a whole group and celebrate the sufferings of those who allied themselves with it. And every one of these stories came a wave of emotion. I never understood it.

Until now.

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Consider this: You spend a sizable amount of money on an item. An item that you expect will take you around everywhere you want to go. And something happens that makes it impossible, and you end up spending a lot of $$$ for something that couldn’t be fixed, or worse bring the item in only to learn that said it was built wrong and couldn’t be made right.

Meanwhile, a different version of that item is made elsewhere that not exceeds all expectations, and without being the high-end luxury item.

You’d feel one thing: BETRAYED.

And you’d turn against the company that made you the item that fell apart.

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Now: That company that has “betrayed” the buyers is GM/Ford/Chrysler/AMC.

After all, people have spent lots of money on cars only to find out they’ve bought a piece of junk. American cars for many years were built with 100,000 miles as the high-end, and everyone knows about the ten cents/car that GM chose over an item that would stabilize the Corvair, or the $2.40 that would have kept Pintos from exploding. Or the V-8/6/4 Caddy that had a thing for becoming a V-0, or the 200,000 mile Diesel V8 Oldsmobiles that seemed to confuse 100,000 as 200,000 miles and fell apart then. Or the Chrysler Trannies that can’t work well, or the Sebring that looks like a Edsel raped a Pinto and forced the Pinto to bring the pregnancy to full term. Or, for that matter, the Cobalts that can’t fit 6’4″ drivers within their driver spaces (while the import Aveo has no problem with head room).

And while they may have some problems with their latest Nissan Versa/Tilde or Honda Insight or Lexus XE, it’s not like the bad old days, when things went automatically wrong with the American cars and nothing was/could be done to fix them.

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Here’s the key point of the Betrayal: You can’t fix it right.

You can fix your cars so they come #1 on the JD Powers polls, make the most fuel-efficient fleet in the land and even win races regularly; the people betrayed will remember the betrayal and base their decisions on that. And while it seems irrational (considering everything that’s gone on since then), it’s the fact that they had to make a move and it was (or had become, in many instances) the wrong move that stays logically remembered.

No one likes their trust played with. And with lots of money involved in buying a new car, there’s no real room for a second chance. You’d be better off gambling on an unknown than going back to the bitch that ruined you before.

And that’s why people hate American Car Companies.

Did Disco Die in 1979? And Why?

Yeah, I know. Disco sucked, and the world improved when it died at the old Comisky Park that summer day in 1979 after the first game of a Chicago White Sox/Detroit Tigers Doubleheader (BTW…thanks for the win, Dahl).

But…why did Disco “die” in 1979? And Why, if it did?

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Thing is, music isn’t just music. A music scene also takes on a form of dress, a form of dance, a form of relating to the opposite sex, a flavor of political identity (and level of involvement in addition)…in other words, a worldview.

So how does Disco relate in each of these ways (especially in relation to Rock in the Seventies, the musical form which it was a response to)?

  • music: Disco was made to be danced to, whereas Rock had long developed into the sort of music that you sat down and listened to.
  • dress: Disco required people to dress up to involve themselves into the music, whereas Rock merely required jeans and a T-shirt.
  • dance: At a rock concert? Heck, Punk had more dancing than Rock in the Seventies, and it was sometimes dangerous for woman to be punk.
  • the opposite sex/desire: As an example of Rock’s Misogyny: how many female Rock singers do we know of? Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks (Solo pushes her over the brink), Joan Jett, Patty Smythe (was asked to replace David Lee Roth when he left Van Halen, so she counts), Sharon Osborne (include because she’s the power behind Ozzy), maybe the Go-Gos as a group. Otherwise, women were better off to the side, stripped for easy access.  Disco, on the other hand, had no problem with women singers, and women were especially catered to.
  • political identity/level of involvement: Rock was mildly homophobic and linked to the status quo (although more by omission than commission, it could take properly leftist stands when it felt the need); Disco was obstensively politically neutral, but knew its debt to gays (which in some ways was duly noted).

In other words, it was a threat to a group of men who had grown used to being catered to (if only through their fantasies). Steve Dahl, who found his job in Chicago because his Los Angeles girlfriend had to get creative to get rid of him (and sleep peacefully at night), understood this: “The average guy…didn’t have the right clothes, couldn’t get into the right clubs, and thought he’d never get laid again because of disco,” was his comment in reaction to what happened.

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Now before I declare what I think the “disco scene” died from, let it be known that there were other things going on.

First off, disco was being worked to death. As a rockist with an open ear opined, “While Disco paved the way for Donna Summer and other good singers, it also butchered a lot of other formerly good singers with its touch.” Not only that, but the audience was changing (and the sound with it).

Part of the issue with Disco was that it wasn’t so much the scene of the young and hip as it was the scene of an older group of people living out the adolescence they felt they were denied in their rush to get married and raise children. Older women were dressing up and putting themselves out onto the meat market, and the men who wanted to be there had to learn how to dress, dance and shmooze for their chance. And when those women (and the men who chased them) decided to settle down and do other things, the scene had to change.

And then there was all that hatred of Disco. Mind you, it wasn’t just Dahl and the Chicago people; there was a lot of Disco Hatred even before 1977. Casey Casem actually apologized when “(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty” made #1 in the AT Top 40 Countdown. I know I hated Disco from 1976 through 1980, through four different school districts, and while it was a hard time, the rough times started AFTER I started hating Disco.

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But I believe that Steve Dahl had a major hand in killing Disco in America and pushing the dance scene back underground. Not so much because of his act, but because of what it showed Disco to be, in some ways.

Simply put, Disco proved to be the province of wimps. Rock had its long period of fighting for acceptance (and actual defeat), Punk had its active opposition to the mainstream, Rap came from the Black experience AKA the American Underclass (as did Jazz, Soul, Blues and R&B), Alternative took Punk’s path and pains for its own at the start, and Country spent decades in a southern/rural exile before rising to its present-day prominence. Disco didn’t have to deal with any real opposition until Disco Demolition Night; in many ways this was its first true dealings with hate…and it folded. Clubs closed, stations changed formats, and fans hid away in a newfound “appreciation” of domestic “bliss;” all because of a bit of hatred thrown their way.

I know of other views; but to me this is the best.