CBS Sunday Morning recently aired a feature on this year’s Detroit Auto Show, highlighting the new push for quality and teamwork. It was so exciting to watch how executives and union workers alike reported that “lessons had been learned.” The result? The new head of Chrysler, Sergio Mechionne, the CEO of Fiat, told CBS, “Product is key. Everything else is nonsense.” Hey, better late than never to hear that the Big Three is finally listening to what customers want.
UAW’s President Bob King added, “I hope people look at the auto industry as a model of what should be happening across America. Here’s government and management, business, labor and community all working together and look at the results; everybody is further ahead.” I also never thought I’d hear such a positive report from America’s autoworkers.
I grew up in Detroit, a child of the UAW and proud of it in my youth! My father worked for Chrysler for more than 30 years and my mother was at GM almost as long. Yet by the 80s, I was in public relations in New York, representing industry consultants Oliver Wight Companies http://www.oliverwight.com/ and publicizing their books about the rise of quality control on production lines and why Japanese automakers understood it and Detroit’s corporate arrogance was in the way.
I’m still sad that it took bankruptcy to get Detroit’s Big Three back on track, especially since their troubles so heavily devastated my hometown. But I hope you’ll take a moment to look over the CBS story at http://bit.ly/zSseg6 and hear the resounding agreement from managers and employees: Detroit’s auto industry has made a dramatic U-turn and is coming back. It’s a reaffirmation of the triumph of quality and teamwork.
My brother Bill loves to restore cars and a few years ago he took on the project of restoring my grandfather’s 1929 Chevrolet. I’m not surprised by his passion, since we grew up in Detroit and our parents worked in the auto industry. Bill got a technical degree in engineering and followed my father’s footsteps by working at Chrysler, but my mother and many of her siblings worked for GM. My brother’s goal was to have the Chevy ready for the Detroit area car circuit this year when General Motors launched its 100 year celebration of the first Chevrolet.
Bill didn’t quite reach his goal – it was difficult to get many of the parts he needed to replace. However he did get the engine purring again and the chassis rebuilt and with some help from my other brother Gilbert, he started driving it that way to local car shows, with a photo display of the new auto from the family archives. It was a big hit. The public flocked around his exhibit and the family had fun getting pictures taken driving the sparkling new chassis around the neighborhood. He’s talked to many reporters and finally a story appeared last month in Tech Center News with an interview with both brothers. On a trip home last month, I helped him submit a photo and story to a local newspaper. Who knew that his passion for cars – a common pastime in the Motor City—would make him such a big hit with other car lovers.
The ’29 Chevy was purchased new by my Uncle Joseph Lehotan while an employee of General Motors. He retired after about 35 years. My brother has a great photo of my Uncle Joe in front of the car with my mother, my Aunt Amelia and my Uncle John – all GM employees. Those four relatives together represented about 130 years of devotion to the building of General Motors products.
A little research showed that Uncle Joe paid a total of more than $600 for the car from a Detroit area dealership and borrowed $509.40 on a chattel mortgage to afford it. During the depression, my uncle sold the car to his father Joseph Sr., who worked with former United Mine Workers America president John L. Lewis in East St. Louis, Illinois. The car was eventually brought back to Michigan when my grandparents bought and relocated to the Vassar family farm in 1935, one of many Slovak families to settle in that area. For the next 15 years, the Chevy was the family’s main car and was also later used as a utility vehicle on the farm until it was finally stored in the mid-50s. When my Uncle Andrew passed away several years ago, Bill bought it from the estate with the intention of restoring it.
Bill is proud to be sharing both his family’s long, devoted work history with General Motors and 82 years of family ownership and caring for their 1929 Chevrolet. How great that often recognition comes just from pursuing the things we love most!
Study the competition – that seems like a common sense rule when it comes to marketing a business, no matter the size. Yet it is always amazing to discover where the giants ignore the basic rules.
Consider the auto industry. I grew up in a prosperous Detroit back when General Motors was the greatest corporation in the world. It was with great pain that I watched the inner-city burn and the population flee following the race riots in the late 60’s. The central city has never recovered because its fate has been so linked to the troubled American auto industry.
I had an opportunity recently to get some unique observations from the competition on why the Detroit auto industry was doomed to flame out so spectacularly and destroy the local economy.
Carlos Ghosn, the Chairman and CEO of Renault Nissan Alliance spoke at the French Institute on how his successful career has been shaped by his global outlook. Ghosn was born in Brazil, of French and Lebanese heritage. His education was in France and his early career was forged at Michelin, a French company. In the late 90’s he was able to step in and turn around a troubled Nissan Corporation. Ghosn explained that because he had a nomadic upbringing and was not rooted in one place, he was also not stuck in the mind-frame of one culture. He felt he was able to successfully lead a Japanese company because they also had no preconceived biases against him. Yet as an outsider, he could more readily see their mistakes.
So why, he was asked, did the Japanese eventually overtake the Americans in their trademark industry? Simple, he replied – the Japanese studied the American competition closely, but the American automakers did not study their Japanese competitors or even seem to realize they should be worried about their strategies until it was too late. Constantly analyze and learn from your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, Ghosn warned.
As I watch the American automobile industry rebuild, I hope this is one mistake they have learned and are not destined to repeat.