Monday, June 1, 2009

Fall of an American Giant

Founded in 1908, G.M. ruled the car industry for more than half a century, with a broad range of vehicles, reflecting the company’s promise to offer “a car for every purse and purpose.”

Rarely has a company fallen so far and so fast as General Motors.

The company did have vast numbers of loyal buyers, but G.M. lost them through a series of strategic and cultural missteps starting in the 1960s.

It bungled efforts in the 1980s to cut costs by sharing the underpinnings of its cars across different brands, blurring their distinctiveness.

G.M. gave in to union demands in 1990 and created a program that paid workers even when plants were not running, forcing it to build cars and trucks it could not sell without big incentives.

Its finance staff argued with product developers and marketers who pushed for aggressive spending on new cars and trucks. But forced to feed so many brands, G.M. often resorted to a practice called “launch and leave” — spending billions upfront to bring vehicles to market, but then failing to keep supporting them with sustained advertising.

With its market share shrinking, G.M. could not give its multiple brands and car models the individual attention that helped Honda attract customers to the Accord and Toyota to its Camry.

It also lost interest in vehicles that needed time to find their audience, as happened when the company introduced the EV1 electric vehicle and then dropped it in 1999 after only three years.

Now G.M.’s brand lineup is being halved, with the company jettisoning divisions like Pontiac.

“Nobody gave any respect to this thing called image because it wasn’t in the business plan,” Mr. Wangers said. “It was all about, ‘When is this going to earn a profit?’ ”

Over the years, G.M. executives became practiced at the art of explaining their problems, attributing blame to everyone but themselves.

That list included the United Automobile Workers, for demanding health care coverage and pensions (even though G.M. agreed to provide them); government regulators, for imposing rules that G.M. said hampered its competitiveness; the Japanese government, for unfairly helping its own carmakers break into the United States market; and the news media, for failing to appreciate G.M. vehicles and the strides the company was making to improve them.

Asked in 1995 why he had not moved faster to reorganize the company, the late G.M. chief executive Roger Smith replied, “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if we could have flipped a switch?”

Even last week, G.M.’s newly retired vice chairman, Robert A. Lutz, said the automaker had experienced a “world of hurt, much of it not of our own doing.”

Sloganeering was not backed up by execution. Executives wore lapel pins, for example, in 2002, with the number “29” — referring to the market share the company vowed to regain (most companies focus on profits). Through April of this year, its share was 19 percent, a steep drop from its peak of 54 percent in 1954.

Consumers started blaming G.M. for sub-par vehicles. They may have given them second and third chances, but many eventually started switching to other brands, which will make it that much harder for G.M. to win them back.

Mr. Wagoner was able to hold on to his job for longer than people expected, as G.M.’s stock fell steadily from about $70 when he took charge at the start of the decade. It closed at 75 cents a share on Friday.

By MICHELINE MAYNARD, New York Times, Published: May 31, 2009

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