General Motors Rest in Peace. Maybe if Michael Moore had not written and produced "Roger and Me" back in Flint and Detroit, critical of the corporation, we'd not be attending this funeral?
My grandfather, William "King" Simpson, worked at GM's Locomotive Division in LaGrange, Illinois, for over 40 years. He was a technology engineer figuring out ways to keep giant train diesel engines running. After retirement, Grandpa Simpson got a Cadillac from GM as part of a network of market researchers and testing families. Finally, when my father's turn arrived, we got a Caddy too. Man, you could stretch across the back a full six feet and not touch a door.
Our clan was a GM Family. We were loyalty-bound to buy GM products until my grandfather passed away. I have personally owned: a 1973 Chevy Nova, 1976 Chevy Chevette, 1982 Chevy Cavalier (my first new car off the lot), 1988 Chevy Beretta. Marketers call me a "brand loyalist."
That is, until I bought an Acura TL and later an Acura RL and I have never looked back. Every Chevy I ever owned was in with Mr. Goodwrench frequently. Neither Acura has ever been in the shop for more than an oil change. The RL is now at 100,000 miles and just getting started.
Today, the papers announced the sale of GM Saturn Division to Roger Penske. One dealer said of Saturn: "We lost our [brand] voice." Penske has more Indy Car wins than any other race car owner. His move saves 13,000 jobs in America. Saturn loyalists must be thrilled. Penske has had a joint venture operation with GM to build race cars for over 25 years. Let's hope Saturn survives with Penske's push to focus on quality.
Fiat will pay $2 billion for Chrysler. This is really a distribution deal giving Fiat a global footprint and saving U.S. and global jobs. Fiat? I also owned a Fiat X-19, the old Wedge-shaped sports car, when I first moved back to Washington in 1988 upon the election of George W. Bush. Fiat, as we all know, means "fix it again, Tony." That car was either in with my Italian mechanic or at the DC impound lot since I literally parked it up on Capitol Hill in Bush's first term. Hey, I was rushing for floor votes!
The most amazing technology tour I ever did was the Toyota motor manufacturing plant in Lexington, KY (TMMK). It is really a marvel of modern times, putting out 100 cars a day including Solara and Camry. In a manufacturing Houdini. Toyota changed production lines to make hybrid battery powered Camry's and semi-electric cars after the success of the Prius. As public affairs director of the National Association of Manufacturers, I was able to meet lots of smart automotive guys from Detroit. I have done my share of plant tours. But Toyota's use of robotics, JIT, Keiretsu principles, and its self-contained plant, has been unequaled in my experience.
Toyota stamps the sheet metal, welds the body (with robots), diecasts the engine block, runs the electrical wiring packages, molds the thermoplastics, and assembles a car every 30 seconds. In a recent press release during the first week of June, Toyota showed its sharp uptick in sales: "Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., today reported that May vehicle sales hit a new monthly high for the year and jumped 20.6 percent compared to April 2009 with sales of 152,583 vehicles."
I knew after that Toyota visit that Detroit had been beaten.
Last year, the public affairs/relations industry went to Detroit for its annual PRSA convention. We stayed in the GM complex at Renaissance Center and the irony of that building name was not lost on me. It was depressing to see so much unemployment. President Obama and Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised labor a better outcome on the stump in Michigan. I was lucky to work with Obama's field director in Michigan who delivered votes.
Today, we own the company! But will we really own a nationalized car company? Or is it indeed in the best interests of the U.S. that we parse out the GM brands and technologies for a profit?
One bright spot for GM was a visit with the global operations center of On-Star. American ingenuity at its best, On-Star has answered millions of calls, creating a safety and security record beyond any previous GPS and communications network. I use On-Star every day. Here is a piece of GM that needs to spin-out as its own business. It is a going concern.
On-Star has a great feature: "Tell us Your On-Star Story" (at www.onstar.com). There you will find brand loyalty and lifesaving vignettes about the satellite communications and help desk staff. Maybe with enough feedback, "King" Simpson -- as my grandpa was known -- will still have a legacy.
Follow Mike Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/smittypa