iOS app Android app More

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard

Posted March 11, 2009 | 11:41 AM (EST)

Q&A with auto industry expert William J. Holstein


2009-03-11-QA_Holstein_banner.jpg


Leo W. Gerard: The likes of Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby and other "Toyota Republicans," as I call them, contend that GM and its partners in the Big Three American auto makers are antiquated and irrelevant and should be euthanized. You've written a book, "Why GM Matters" that refutes Shelby's premise by establishing that GM has remade itself as a company and is crucial to the American economy. I believe you. Why do so few others?

William J. Holstein: One major problem is that so many attitudes were formed five, 10, 20 years ago--long before GM began its transformation in earnest. These people, out of ignorance of the facts, are recycling old myths like these: GM can't design cars that Americans want to drive. GM can't innovate. GM hasn't been willing to reduce its cost structure to compete internationally. And so on.

Then there are other people who are consciously trying to destroy or further cripple GM by recycling those arguments. One is U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, who has four transplant factories in his home state of Alabama. It turns out that the Southern Republicans are working on behalf of their home states, and their home states have given hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes and others.

There is another lobby, which I call the "Bankruptcy Lobby," that is trying to push GM into Chapter 11 because these bankruptcy lawyers and their law school allies would profit handsomely from it.


Gerard: So, to quote the book, here's what you actually say:

"Free marketers had felt obliged to go along with the $700 billion {bailout} for Wall Street because Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (the CEO of Goldman Sachs at the very moment that it had become embroiled in Wall Street's love affair with mega-leverage) had convinced them the entire financial system would shut down if they did not.

"But when it came to the auto industry and the UAW, they wanted to slam the brakes on. Part of it also was sheer spite: Republicans were reeling after one of their most devastating electoral losses in history. The auto industry, and particularly, the United Auto Workers, had helped get the Democratic vote out and deliver the crucial swing states of Michigan and Ohio to Barack Obama."

Are you actually saying that Republicans were willing to vote against the good of the country out of spite?

Holstein: Sad to say, but true. They are not acting in the national interest. They are playing for their home states. They have the right to do that. But everyone should be able to understand what they're doing, and why. I blame the media for picking up comments from Shelby and others ("GM is a dinosaur") and printing them, without subjecting them to critical scrutiny.

Gerard: Then you go on to say that the presence of "transplant" factories, or manufacturers like Honda and Toyota from foreign countries located in states like Shelby's Alabama made a difference for some of these senators. And you cite Shelby as an example, noting that Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes and Toyota all located plants in Alabama with the help of state funds, but then he refused to provide federal funds for an American company. So are you saying that these senators were willing to vote for something that was bad for the U.S. - the bankruptcy of the Big Three - because it might provide more business for their home states?

Holstein: As I've said, I think that's exactly what they're trying to do.


Gerard: Oddly, considering the treatment of the UAW in the press, you manage not to lay blame for GM's situation on the union. In fact, you say that by last spring, "The Harbour Report," which you call the bible of car-making statistics, said Toyota factories needed 30 hours to assemble a vehicle while GM required 32. So what does that mean in productivity and difference in labor cost per vehicle?

Holstein: GM and the UAW have made dramatic progress in improving the way the company's cars are manufactured. They've done that by absorbing the Toyota lean production method. And by altering their own relationship, by transferring health care costs to the union's VEBA and by implementing a two-tier wage system. It is estimated that GM will have stripped out $5,000 from the cost of each vehicle by 2010. The relationship between GM and the UAW is by no means perfect, but they have made big progress in helping the company begin to approach the cost structure that Toyota has at its Georgetown, Kentucky plant. This is truly an historic response to Toyota.


Gerard: You cite a fascinating statistic in your third chapter. You say that although the transplants like Honda and Toyota located factories in the U.S. and American manufacturers make some cars overseas and import some parts, GM's chief economist estimates that Toyota's U.S. content is 50 percent while GM's is 75 percent. What does that mean in the long run to Americans, in terms of jobs and the economy, for each GM car made?


Holstein: I don't think it's too dramatic to say that we are in the process of defining what kind of economy we want to have as Americans. Do we want to have an economy where we have many higher-paying jobs in finance, design, engineering, management, marketing (and in GM's case, those jobs all depend on the folks working on the line) or do we want to send our kids to work in foreign-owned factories where a majority of the higher-value added functions are performed in Japan or Korea or Germany? You have heard it said, no doubt, that it doesn't make a difference whether it's a GM job in Michigan or Ohio or a Hyundai job in Alabama. The impact is the same for the American economy, so they say. But that statement is based on a very superficial understanding of auto manufacturing. In fact, it's plain stupid.


Gerard: What I found striking about your book is that it took a hard look at Toyota as well. Here is a company that the Republicans glorified all through those hearings. Some said let the Big Three fail and Toyota can pick up the slack. And yet, Toyota's sales fell off dramatically last year, and it posted a loss too. Wasn't it simply affected by the same market forces that GM was? And if so, why does it retain an aura of perfection?

Holstein: Yes, Toyota has almost had a Teflon coating. The media and political leaders who are so critical of GM seem to turn a blind eye to what Toyota is doing. They glorified its Prius hybrids, which were undeniably a good thing, but ignored the fact that Toyota's much more important push was into full-sized pickup trucks, which hasn't worked. Toyota's design also has fallen behind GM's. Their cars aren't as sexy or as fun to drive. They're like appliances on wheels. Toyota's reputation for quality is even suffering, as they launch recalls in the United States and Japan. Consumer's Reports no longer issues an automatic recommendation for every Toyota car. So yes, things are changing at Toyota. I think we're seeing them go through a period of consolidation or doubt. No company can avoid making mistakes forever.


********************************************************

William J. Holstein is an author, writer and magazine editor. Before "Why GM Matters: Inside the Race to Transform an American Icon," (Walker and Co.), he wrote two other books, "Manage the Media" and "The Japanese Power Game." He has written for "United Press International," "Business Week," "The New York Times" and "Fortune" magazine and served as an editor for a decade for "Business Week," managing the magazine's Asian coverage. He covered the American economy and the auto industry for "U.S. News."