Archive for the 'bailout' Category

Too little, too late?

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U.S. automakers agree to new fuel efficiency standards. U.S. automakers cut costs. U.S. automakers make fuel efficient vehicles. That’s great. The problem isn’t necessarily with what Big Three execs agree to now, or what they say now, it’s what has happened over the last 35, or so, years. GM, and the other American automobile manufacturers have a really bad legacy. Any other companies that were as poorly managed would be out of business. Even with a massive taxpayer bailout, GM is still filing for bankruptcy. That alone speaks volumes.

While Toyota may be hurting, it doesn’t appear they will be filing for bankruptcy. And, Honda, while posting some recent losses appears to be well positioned for the future. It’s as if the American automotive industry is given a pass for failing to plan successfully for the future. And worse yet, for failures which are often admitted, even by Wagoner himself.

It’s sad. I am still paying on a house in metro Detroit, as are others I’m sure, even while having to leave the state to make a living. We are, in effect, paying the price for the short sightedness of our political and corporate leaders. The Big Three execs seem downright excited about new fuel efficiency standards, and electric vehicles. Too bad they didn’t seem remotely interested even ten years ago, and in fact banded together to fight new CAFE standards multiple times.

The argument, by Big Three defenders, is always, “they sold what the public wanted.” Of course the truth is usually not that simple, nor is the past performance proof of future results. Just because people bought Ford Excursions when gas was $1.25/gallon, doesn’t mean they’ll buy them when gas is $3/gallon. But if we are to believe upper management at the Big Three, no one could have seen this coming. Plenty of people did, and smaller companies with less funding, fewer employees, and much less experience in the automotive industry are now leading the way in electric vehicles. While GM has long since canceled the EV1 program, companies such as Tesla, Fisker, and Detroit Electric are now either already selling, or are close to selling everything from high performance sports cars to affordable family sedans.

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You’ll often hear, that it wasn’t short sightedness. That it must be the unions fault, or perhaps it’s just a bad economy. The Big Three have been losing market share and money for much longer than this current economic downturn. Not that I’m not going to defend the UAW. I believe the UAW leadership was self-serving and short sighted, just like management, and our political leaders. I also believe that while much of the union rank and file knew the good times wouldn’t last, most just decided to get it while the getting was good. That’s a pretty short sighted game plan as well. It seems no one could see beyond the end of their nose.

So now, with Chrysler and GM going through bankruptcy, the Big Three are suddenly excited about fuel efficiency standards, controlling costs, and alternative fuel vehicles. Is it too little, too late? And opinions range from Detroit’s too excited about green cars, to the Big Three’s not embracing green cars enough, to Rick Wagoner is a scapegoat, to Rick Wagoner is to blame, to GM has too many brands, to GM should hold to brands, to Obama is doing too much, to Obama is doing too little. Nobody knows exactly what will work, or even if anything will work. Writers from many media outlets including writers from both the Washington Post and Business Week are at odds as to the reasons for the fall of the Big Three, and how to save it.

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The only thing that seems certain is that whatever the fix is, it’s at least 20 years too late. Already the stumbles of the Big Three are opening the doors even wider for foreign manufacturers. I suppose it’s human nature to wait until the roof is collapsing to attempt to fix it, but with all of the money paid to almost everyone involved, you’d hope for a better outcome. When CEOs are paid millions, you expect them to fix inefficiencies, broken business models, and foresee possible future challenges. Gas prices may not stay at $1.25/gallon, consumers may not always want really large SUVs, and the economy may not always grow at record rates. It seems that the claims that no one could see these things coming are a bit disingenuous. It seems more likely that our leaders were simply blind or ignorant. Consumers didn’t always like SUVs. In fact Jeeps were at one point just for that off road enthusiast down the street. Pickup trucks were for construction workers and hunters. Gasoline is a limited resource. We have experienced rising fuel prices several times before. Consumers couldn’t really afford $50k automobiles, but an economy that seemed good led consumers to leverage themselves to buy Hummers and Escalades (among other things). Of course the economy would slow down. It had to. Anyone who couldn’t see that, simply didn’t want to.

The Abandoned House of the week, and the remaking of Detroit

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I saw the following in a Richard Florida article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled How The Crash Will Reshape America: “The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.”

My experience has certainly led me to believe that this is true. I recently read this article about “job sprawl”, which is the condition that exists in Metro Detroit, where most of the jobs are far away from the city core. I once read an article in the Oakland Business Review, about a company located in Oxford, who was unable to find a qualified software engineer. My first thought was, “no shit?” If you are located over 40 miles from the nearest large city, you should probably expect it to be hard to fill technical positions that require a lot of training, and/or education. It looked like a good fit for me, but living in Berkley at the time it was still 30 miles away, and probably an hour or more drive in rush hour traffic. When living in Washington, D.C., I was bombarded with calls and emails from recruiters and head hunters, trying to fill web developer positions in the D.C. area. If the job was not located on the Metro line, or at least within walking distance of the line, I simply said I wasn’t interested.

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If you employ low skilled workers you can locate almost anywhere, but if you need highly skilled, and/or educated, you’re best bet is to be near an area with a relatively high population density. It’s fairly easy to find low skilled workers. Not so when it comes to skilled labor. I’ve had recruiters from around the country contact me because of my specific skill set. They are often having trouble filling these positions. I’ve now worked for multiple companies in densely populated areas that had trouble filling positions. In fact I am currently working for a company that has been trying to fill positions since before I began work there almost a year ago. They are located in an urban center where there is an active high tech community. If they were located 40+ miles from the city, their chances of filling the positions would be slim to none. It’s not that tech workers don’t like the country side; it’s just that in an urban setting you have a much higher concentration of such workers. Your chances of finding the person to fill your high tech role far from the city are not as likely. Someone is going to have a long drive…if they’re willing to do it at all.

Will this change in Detroit? I don’t know. I’m not all that optimistic about Metro Detroit’s outlook. Areas like Royal Oak, and Ann Arbor at least have, arguably, resources, infrastructure and population density to decent tech centers. Currently, Ann Arbor is the area most resembling a creative center, and has the advantage of one of the best public universities in the country. Detroit has the New Center Area, and the Central Business District, but both areas are fairly far from the areas with the highest concentrations of creative workers such as Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Ann Arbor. Detroit has a long way to go to even approach the level of safety, livability, and urban conveniences that the previously mentioned suburban areas already have. Detroit’s advantage at this point are the incredibly low costs of land and buildings. The fact that a start up could acquire large amounts of space and land for very little money should a selling point. The fact that the area is losing the very residents a start up often needs, along with a reputation of as one of the most dangerous cities in the country makes the few pluses at lot less valuable. Detroit will need both the grass roots enthusiasm it’s been seeing, along with large amounts of public, and private funding to even have a chance of becoming a reasonably desirable place to live or do business.

How will Rick get his mojo back? - Anonymous letter sent to The Motor(less) City

Rumors have surfaced amidst speculation that Rick Wagoner, former General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive, is said to be “strongly considering” applying for a position as an unpaid intern with mo (www.lessismo.com), a marketing and creative services firm with offices in Oak Park, Michigan – a Detroit suburb.

An unconfirmed source close to Mr. Wagoner acknowledged earlier today: “Rick has admired the creative work of mo for years now, and he’s expressed very sincere interest in learning more about their internship programs - now that he is able to devote himself more fully to his creative and aesthetic impulses, he is anxious to explore the possibilities.”

That same undisclosed source continues: “Aside from their great work, Rick loves the companies’ name, mo – it reminds him of Motown; he fondly recalls the day when automobiles were made - right here - in Detroit! Cars that Americans coveted - bought and drove. He feels a strong connection with the ‘creative types’ as he calls them, and he now deeply regrets not having hired mo years ago. Wagoner believes that GM’s legacy of ill-conceived and poorly executed marketing programs and initiatives could have been avoided if mo had been on the job…” continues that same close source to the former CEO. “In retrospect, he [Rick] now believes that mo was the answer to GM’s prayers all along…and they were regrettably overlooked in lieu of larger institutional firms.”

A representative of mo issued this prepared statement: “We cannot comment on any conversations we may or may not have had to date with Mr. Wagoner about a position with mo. We adhere to a rigorous standard of excellence for all of our interns. Inclusion in our popular program is based solely on the merit of the individual’s application and the enthusiasm of each candidate, as well as any practical experience they may have in our industry. No exceptions will be made based on previous [CEO] status, race, gender, or ethnicity. Any candidate applying for an internship with us who does not meet our high expectations and standards will not be considered for inclusion, and Mr. Wagoner is no exception. We look forward to reviewing his completed application. And if indeed Mr. Wagoner is looking to get his mojo back, he has certainly come to the right place to find it.”

That same mo representative declined comment on the suggestion the small firm might have saved GM from financial ruin, but added:

“We all either drive Toyotas or we ride our bikes to work – everyone deserves reliable transportation.”

When asked about the recent developments with mo, an employee who asked to remain anonymous said that General Motors Corp. was preparing a statement indicating that it was ‘still reviewing’ the specifics of Wagoner’s compensation package with GM, but internal sources had suggested that an unpaid internship “may appear imprudent for Rick at this juncture given the devaluation of [his] severance package…”

Wagoner’s salary was rolled back in 2008 - his compensation was tied to the company’s stock performance, which has declined significantly since he took the helm of the floundering automotive company. He agreed to accept a salary of $1 for 2009 as part of the automaker’s restructuring plan. Wagner is rumored to be found regularly roaming the halls of the GM headquarters, quietly repeating to himself, “I need to learn a trade…some sort of skill. Maybe graphics. Maybe house painting.”

Rick Wagoner has served as CEO for almost nine of the 32-years he has been employed with General Motors.

Mr. Wagoner was not available for comment.

Job opening in Detroit

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Looks like there’s a job opening at G.M. With Rick Wagoner gone General Motors is now leaderless. What will they do? They won’t know how to make cars or,  more importantly, how to make money…oh wait they already don’t know how to make money. In fact since they had industry insiders leading the charge towards irrelevance for decades maybe the could hire someone with no industry experience…like me, for instance. I have no idea how to manage an auto manufacturing company, neither did Rick Wagoner apparently. Rick Wagoner was paid lots of money. Oh sure, by Wall Street standards he was paid practically nothing, but compared to me, he was paid a lot. They could have paid me a lot less, and ended up in the same spot.

All kidding aside (ok, most),  Chrysler and G.M. appear to be in deep doo-doo. I wondered what Cerberus was thinking when they purchased Chrysler from Daimler-Benz. I know what Cerberus’ M.O. is, but I think they were overly optomistic, and I don’t think their plan worked out too well. Now Chrysler has to Merge with Fiat. Wonderful. So, now, two crappy car companies can make crappy cars together. Maybe, at least, the crappy cars will cost less. I know I’m bound to anger some with statements such as the one I just made, but let me make it clear, that I believe management is to blame. The Union played a role in Chrysler’s demise as well, but any time a company is poorly run, and Chrysler has been poorly run, management is to blame. Management’s job is to maker sure all parts of a company function in unison to achieve a goal. If the goal is wrong, or portions of the company are not performing, it’s always managements job to redress such issues. And, most likely what G.M. really needs is a leader who the skeptical public will believe feels as disgusted with the old ways as they do. Someone who isn’t part of the dysfunctional machine, and shows a desire for a complete overhaul.

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With two (here, and here) recent announcements by smaller companies, you have to wonder where the Big Three have had their collective heads lodged lately. Of course those cars aren’t out yet, and Tesla, and Detroit Electric have nothing to lose by making claims they may not be able to follow through on. Meanwhile the Big Three can’t afford to fall short of big claims. But that’s mainly because they’ve become the definition of over promising and under delivering. They’ve already used up their “get out of jail free” cards. Still, why did G.M. wait until the verge of bankruptcy to come up with a plan for a usable electric vehicle?

So the price to pay for such short-sightedness by the Big Three is partial socialization of a huge portion of our manufacturing industry. Anyone who’s angry about the state we are in should have spoken up long ago. It’s now a choice of pay to save the very ones at center of problem, or pay the price of doing nothing, and watching as an entire industry collapses around us. And actually there’s a third scenario as well. We may pay to save the industry, only to have it fail anyway.

Abandoned Detroit

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Detroit and Michigan  have both been in the news quite a bit lately. Almost every evening news cast, in, and outside of, Michigan, has been focused on whether or not the Big 3 would get a loan (or a bail out, depending on your point of view). Now it appears that at least two of the Big 3 will have access to roughly $17 billion in Federal loans. The big question now is whether or not this loan, at around half of what was requested, will enable the Chrysler and General Motors to survive.

Unfortunately, even if the Big 3 do all survive, they will not be what they used to be, and neither will Michigan. The days of higher than average pay for both blue and white collar jobs at the Big 3 are over, and this will exact a heavy toll on the, heavily automotive dependent, Michigan economy. As it is, Michigan once again leads the nation in unemployment, while Detroit continues it’s downward slide, defying the belief once held by many that Detroit had nowhere to go but up. Michigan can’t seem to pass anti-smoking legislation, even as states such as Kentucky, and countries such as Italy, and France have passed smoking bans. And a decent mass transit system is still years away, though at least progress is being made in this area. Apparently the dire economic situation has made some of our previously reluctant politicians to expand Cobo Hall, and hopefully save the North American International Auto Show.

The most interesting news reports on Detroit though, have been about it’s long declining population. This is, of course, nothing new. Detroit’s population peeked in 1950 at almost 2 million. Since then the decline to roughly half it’s peek, leaves the city with around 850,000 residents. The Detroit Free Press, reports that Manhattan, Boston, and San Fransisco, could all fit in the boundaries of Detroit with room to spare. Apparently, at the rate of decline Detroit is experiencing, the city will be 50% vacant within five to ten years. The amount of vacant land has lead to an increase in the population of generally non-city dwelling animals, such as pheasants and coyotes. The city has also seen a large increase in the amount of urban farming. Perhaps Detroit will be the first American city to go from urban to suburban, or even rural classification. While the current state of the city is scary to say the least, the possibilities for Detroit’s future are much more interesting. Camilo Jose Vergara once suggested that Grand Circus Park become a skyscraper graveyard theme park. My wife always thought Detroit should turn it’s vacant land into large parks or green areas. I have been fond of recommending (tongue in cheek) that Detroit tries reverse annexation. While I don’t generally like eminant domain laws, I do think it’s impossible for a city of 850,000 (and still declining) to maintain and provide services to an area of 139 square miles. It’s possible nothing will change, and Detroit will continue it’s decline for the foreseeable future. It’s also possible that Detroit, and the Metro area, can make something better with this, potentially, clean slate.

Post (auto) Industrial

An interesting look at what happens when industries collapse. Unless one plans for change, the results can be disastrous…

When Cars Go Away

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The Big 3 Bailout, or, is this the end of the road for Detroit

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It seems the Big Three, and consequently Detroit, doesn’t have too many friends these days. Public support for a bailout of financial companies had little public support, and the U.S. automotive industry has even less. The industry has been viewed by the average person as a slow moving, inefficient, and wasteful industry incapable of producing quality vehicles. The politicians see an industry that fought against requirements for producing more fuel efficient automobiles, lobbied for tariffs on light trucks and SUV’s, had out of control expenses,  and couldn’t see far enough down the road to be ready for a day when the public didn’t want Hummers or Excursions anymore. Unfortunately many who were too close to the industry didn’t, and maybe still don’t, see things this way.

Rick Wagoner testified in Washington on the need for a government bailout for the Big Three. In his statement Rick Wagoner made several good points, including, “General Motors directly employs approximately 96,000 people in the United States”, and “Last year, we purchased more than $30 billion of goods and services from more than 2,000 suppliers in 46 states.” He also made the claims that GM had made tremendous progress in recent years, by cutting costs, improved vehicle quality, and lowered legacy costs, and that the biggest problem was out of their hands. Rick Wagoner stated that it was the downturn in the economy and the automotive industry, and the current credit crisis that posed the greatest threat to GM’s survival.

I have no love for the Big Three. Over the past decade I’ve watched as CEO’s pushed off dealing with a broken business model, and walked away with fat payouts for their short-sited, and almost certainly, damaging business decisions. The lack of foresight that the American automotive industry has shown, seems to be almost unequaled. Sure other industries have failed to see what was right around the corner, but the ability of the Big Three to ignore the obvious, and insist on business as usual while the industry was cratering, was astounding.

All that said, we’re all on the hook for this one. So while I can still be angry that assembly line workers could make upwards of $140k (yes, I know someone who did…), and that CEOs could make millions while steering a once great industry straight down the drain, I have to remember that Detroit, Michigan, the Midwest, and the entire U.S. economy is still dependent on it. With out, not only do employees of the auto companies lose their jobs, but those of the suppliers, and those who sell meals to workers, and employers, and so on and so on.  The numbers who are indirectly connected to the industry are staggering. I am bitter and angry at how these companies have been run, but I’m not willing to cut off my nose to spite my face. Unfortunately I need the Big Three and so do you. What I want to know is why financial companies that made very poor business decisions and took dangerously large, and over leveraged risks, while paying managers and CEOs millions, get a bailout on my dime, but one of the largest industries in the country, seems to be so undeserving.

I think loans should be made, with conditions. The current management and board of directors are out, and long term plans of action must be in place. Management and the U.A.W. need to be on the same page (I was once told by the head of the U.A.W Chrysler that it was “a war between the U.A.W. and Chrysler.” Sorry, thought you were both trying to achieve the same goal…), and the public gets paid back with interest.

What’s really killing Detroit

Auto bailout: showdown

GM Failure: the

How to fix the Big Three

In Detroit, Failure’s a Done Deal

Detroit is going down — if not now, eventually

Saving Detroit from itself

G.O.P. Senators oppose bailout

Moore: Automakers never listened

Retirees Watching Anxiously: Will GM Be Saved

Dems want automakers to show bailout spending plan

No need for bailout, say diners near thriving car plant