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On A Clear Day You Could Have Seen General Motors

Saturday, May 30, 2009
I'm re-reading a book that, many years ago, became a favorite of mine. On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors is John Z. De Lorean's account of his years at GM, the problems the corporation faced, and his eventual decision to leave the company. When I first read the book GM was still the largest carmaker in the world but had certainly lost the luster it once had (and perhaps hadn't even held in my lifetime.) Now, of course, GM is widely expected to file for bankruptcy this coming Monday and yesterday the stock price closed at a record low of $.75/share. How the once-mighty have fallen is complicated only in surmising the breadth and tenure of failure in the company.

The book was written at the end of the 1970s and the tone of the book is largely set as "GM is undeniably the largest, most powerful company in the world, but..." Were it not for this, the book could have been written today as an expose in the the current corporate problems. Perhaps the most telling paragraph in the book is this (emphasis is mine):
"When we should have been planning switches to smaller, more fuel-efficient, lighter cars in the late 1960s in response to the growing demand in the marketplace, GM management refused because "we make more money on big cars." It mattered not that customers wanted the smaller cars or that a national balance-of-payments deficit was being built in large part because of the burgeoning sales of foreign cars in the American market."
That this was written and published in 1979 - thirty years ago! - and that GM's most recent problems were fueled by their reliance on the sales of large trucks and SUVs when gas prices shot through the roof and sales of these vehicles plummeted is a message that nothing was ever fixed. In fact, interestingly, Rick Wagoner, the recently departed CEO of GM, was first employed by GM only a few years after the writing of the book. Were lessons ever learned?

One more passage strikes me as almost prophetic:
"Perhaps most frustrating was the realization that there was (and is) no vehicle for change. For the most part, a top executive by the time he works his way through the system is a carbon copy of his predecessors. If the men in place cannot do the job, there is no reason to believe that their handpicked successors can. There never was, in my days with General Motors, an attempt by management to analyze previous corporate decisions to see if they were right for the company, and to use this information in perfecting the management process of the future."
I'm consistently amazed that so much of the book, were you to eliminate the names and dates, could have been written last year. The decisions haven't changed, the players haven't changed, but the market has changed. How I - and I'm sure so many others - wish that the current state of affairs could have been avoided, but apparently this ball has been rolling for over three decades.

I don't know what the future holds. At this point, no one does. But I do know that it will take more than just new leadership to revive and reinvigorate General Motors. Is it worth it? I think it is.


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