Final Inspection

Death Has Its Benefits and Other Tales From the Russian Front

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One-time General Motors purchasing chief Bo Andersson says there’s one headache he didn’t bring with him in his new job as chairman of Russian auto maker GAZ.

Speaking to the Automotive News World Congress, just down the street from the North American International Auto Show this week, Andersson notes the rather young average age of Russia’s 141 million people.

“People don’t live that long, so retirement benefits is not an issue,” he deadpans. “So I have one less problem.

“The average age is 35. So I have one more year to live,” adds Andersson, who actually is, ahem, just a little further north of 35 than that. (Actual life expectancy in Russia is 67.6 years, according to the World Bank.)

In his presentation, Andersson, who has been on the job since July, gives a glimpse of life in the Russian auto industry, noting GAZ’s sprawling, 6-sq.-mile home complex in Nizhny Novgorod with many of its 482 buildings either superfluous or in disrepair and a shaky domestic supplier industry that must be paid daily.

“I’m not happy about that,” he says of the parts-payment plan. But he says the Russian supplier sector is similar to elsewhere in the world. “Some are great, some are not and some are in the middle.”

Asked what the biggest adjustment was in the switch from GM purchasing to managing a Russian auto maker, Andersson says, “Becoming a little meaner. It’s a military style (management). And if you don’t raise your voice, they don’t listen.”

Communication boils down to the basics, he adds, because he speaks little Russian. “If I smile, they know they did something good.”

Andersson has been busy trying to remove some of the excesses produced under earlier regimes. Fences, he says, are everywhere around the complex to thwart theft. But when he questioned the need to surround one area, he was told the fence was there “because of the snow.”

“No one is going to steal our snow,” he says he told the staff. “Tear it down.”

On the plus side, product development can move faster, because there are no fuel-economy or safety standards. “We can put a new engine in the Gazelle (light-commercial vehicle) and immediately it’s improved,” he notes.

Andersson says he’s been inside the Russian White House for meetings at the highest levels of government. But his Russian counterparts at GAZ generally make sure he keeps his distance.

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