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We've All Caught the Detroit Disease

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Ward's Automotive was for decades a major US auto industry trade publication. Each year, Ward's published a yearbook, with a one-page market share table near the center.

Each year the book detailed share stats for not just GM, but Chevrolet, and within Chevy, Impalas and BelAirs. Plymouths, Dodges, Ramblers all got detailed at the model level.

Except for one line.

Imports.

From the late 50s until the late 80s, the industry lumped together Rolls Royces and Volkswagens and Toyotas in one simple category: Imports.

Not until the late 80s, when "imports" finally exceeded 25% of the US market, did they get broken out. Last week, BusinessWeek reported that GM's US market share was at 22.6% A reversal of fortune (in 1963, GM had 51% of the US market).

Over the years, Detroit came up with dozens of excuses. They blamed "deathtrap" used cars (whose only real threat, of course, was to prices of new cars). Roger Smith blamed technology. Detroit blamed fashion quirks in California. It blamed excise taxes. It blamed Japan, Inc.

As recently as May 8, 2005 (on George Stephanopoulos' ABC News show), none other than Jack Welch blamed labor -- high health care costs, negotiated at a time of no competition, and argued for a break. Welch conveniently forgets who negotiated all those contracts -- Detroit. Without a gun to its head.

The truth is, Detroit had and still has an American disease. It has a few key symptoms:
  • Belief that we are the biggest, standalone market, immune from global competition, and that the Big 3 had dominant market share
  • Belief that GDP growth drives auto sales, that growth means growth in market share, and that buyers are price-driven
  • Belief that, in the immortal words of Lee Iacocca, brought back a few years ago from the taxidermist to re-appear on TV, "the most important thing is the deal!"

The Japanese in particular always believed it was a global market, far bigger than the US, and that they, including Toyota, were small players on a global stage. For them it was always about growth, not share. And for them, price was not something you jacked up with leader models and white-walls and radios, it was something you set low, for growth, and built in all the quality you could, until you earned the right to sell at higher price points. It was not "the deal" -- it was, profoundly, the relationship.

They were -- oh, what's the word? -- right.

So, perhaps we should go outside Detroit. Maybe tap the American zeitgeist and come up with private equity, and an industry outsider!

And so we have Bob Nardelli, late of Home Depot fame, coming in as CEO of Chrysler for Cerberus Capital, Chrysler's new private equity owner. According to Newsweek, Detroit insiders say they expect Cerberus to shake up the moribund American auto industry. Private equity has a lot going for it, but long-term thinking tends not to be part of it. Industry expertise isn't all bad -- and Nardelli has none of it. Pardon my skepticism in this case -- I don't see this ending well.

True, Detroit is easy to pick on. But you'd think the rest of US industry would catch a clue.

On Wall Street, a new phrase was invented only a few years ago: IBGYBG. I'll be gone, you'll be gone, so let's do the deal and let the suckers pay for it.

Now consumers are suckered into no-income second mortgages (:hey they wouldn't lend me the money if they didn't think I could pay it back, right?") which are then sliced and diced and tranched and resold and leveraged and omigosh, looks like a credit crisis! The spirit of Iacocca lives.

In Bentonville, they learned the volume lesson, but not the price/quality lesson. WalMart is teaching a nation that anything worth having is worth having at half the price and one third the quality so you can get more things worth having to replace yesterday's list. Planned obsolescence lives.

In Washington, the courage to face long-term financial issues is in short supply, and the belief that we stand alone -- politically, militarily, culturally -- is the reverse.

We've ended up with: here-now, cheaper by the dozen, do the transaction, no money down, quarterly earnings and get your buyout package just before you default on the schnooks pension plans.

We've learned well from Detroit -- the wrong lessons.