|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
IF General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.
Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.
The new management must work with labor leaders to see that the enmity between labor and management comes to an end. This division is a holdover from the early years of the last century, when unions brought workers job security and better wages and benefits. But as Walter Reuther, the former head of the United Automobile Workers, said to my father, “Getting more and more pay for less and less work is a dead-end street.”
You don’t have to look far for industries with unions that went down that road. Companies in the 21st century cannot perpetuate the destructive labor relations of the 20th. This will mean a new direction for the U.A.W., profit sharing or stock grants to all employees and a change in Big Three management culture.
The need for collaboration will mean accepting sanity in salaries and perks. At American Motors, my dad cut his pay and that of his executive team, he bought stock in the company, and he went out to factories to talk to workers directly. Get rid of the planes, the executive dining rooms — all the symbols that breed resentment among the hundreds of thousands who will also be sacrificing to keep the companies afloat.
Investments must be made for the future. No more focus on quarterly earnings or the kind of short-term stock appreciation that means quick riches for executives with options. Manage with an eye on cash flow, balance sheets and long-term appreciation. Invest in truly competitive products and innovative technologies — especially fuel-saving designs — that may not arrive for years. Starving research and development is like eating the seed corn.
Just as important to the future of American carmakers is the sales force. When sales are down, you don’t want to lose the only people who can get them to grow. So don’t fire the best dealers, and don’t crush them with new financial or performance demands they can’t meet.
It is not wrong to ask for government help, but the automakers should come up with a win-win proposition. I believe the federal government should invest substantially more in basic research — on new energy sources, fuel-economy technology, materials science and the like — that will ultimately benefit the automotive industry, along with many others. I believe Washington should raise energy research spending to $20 billion a year, from the $4 billion that is spent today. The research could be done at universities, at research labs and even through public-private collaboration. The federal government should also rectify the imbedded tax penalties that favor foreign carmakers.
But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost.