Final Inspection

The End of a Road Well-Traveled

In my 40-plus years of journalism, covering the international auto industry has been the best gig ever and one helluva ride.

 

I was riding the elevator down from the 27th floor, where my office at WardsAuto was located, with some disparate items in tow.

Looking straight ahead, I ignored the curious glances from fellow passengers who, dressed in tasteful business attire, were eying the odd assortment tucked in my arms.

My collection included one dog-eared postcard from Greece that had been taped to my office door for at least 10 years, a plastic flower pot that remained in place long after the plant had died and an ergonomic footrest that had helped keep me properly positioned at my computer during the long hours of editing reporters’ copy.

It was the end of September and my final day of employment after deciding to retire following 17 years of service, 11 of them overseeing editorial content for our daily website, and there seemed no end to the stuff to pack into my car. In my 40-plus years of journalism, covering the international auto industry has been my best gig ever and one helluva ride.

What the folks on the elevator could not see and will never know is not the junk in my arms but the memories carried in my head. I had arrived at Ward’s in 1996, a refugee of a take-no-prisoners newspaper strike in Detroit, followed by my fatalistic attempt at a startup community newspaper – which though successful with readers did not turn a profit.

I came boldly seeking an editor’s job posted in the want-ads with no experience in automotive, save that I was born in Detroit and cars were part of my DNA, plus the ability to tell a good yarn. I also had a lot of nerve, considering the amazingly talented staff I was seeking to join.

The only editorial job opening was entry level, but after a long stretch with no income I gratefully signed on, despite 18 years experience on a major metropolitan newspaper.

Promotions were swift, from Asia-Pacific editor to overseeing international news and finally being named web editor when our present site launched. The mid-’90s was a perfect time to take a ringside seat to history: the U.S. industry was giddy with success, flush with cash and new product, including the introduction of SUVs.

U.S. auto makers were pushing into foreign markets as well, most notably General Motors’ joint venture in China with one of the government’s largest vehicle groups, SAIC. I was sent to cover GM China CEO Phil Murtaugh’s introduction of the Buick brand at a special presentation during the Beijing auto show, even as the international press insisted it was a fool’s errand.

I also toured the aging Jeep plant in Beijing with Chrysler’s vice president of China operations, who told me the JV was pretty much an orphan of the U.S. parent, which could have but did not promote the fact it was the first U.S. automaker to build passenger vehicles in China. No one cared at the time.

China primarily made trucks, buses and taxis under communist rule until political reformist Chairman Deng Xiaoping declared the free-enterprise system a good thing and insisted GM bring its prestigious Buick brand to the local market. Eventually, the floodgates opened, and long after his death in 1997 foreign auto makers still are streaming in.

I was on hand in Brazil in 2000, as well, when GM celebrated the inauguration of its vaunted Chevrolet Celta small-car production plant in Gravatai. The manufacturing complex, dubbed Blue Macaw in its secretive conceptual stage, was hailed at the time as the most-efficient GM factory in the world, including an innovative onsite supplier park.

Relying on component makers to provide pre-assembled sections of the car, GM Brazil further planned to carry out a build-to-order system through the use of online customer booking that would allow the auto maker to greatly reduce manufacturing and inventory costs.

And then there was the trip to South Korea, where Daewoo Motor Chairman and founder Kim Woo-choong was hosting more than 1,000 auto writers for the world debut of his revolutionary Matiz minicar.

Helicopter rides over the mountainous cone-shaped Korean terrain to visit the company’s far-flung enterprises seemed straight out of the opening scene from the TV sitcom “MASH.”

Our U.S. group of five auto writers explored Daewoo’s shipbuilding operations and three car plants, after which we were bused to a traditional but remote Korean resort, where we participated in a huge extravaganza with the other journalists that included a sumptuous dinner featuring – wait for it – Chinese cuisine!

Kim eventually brought the Daewoo brand to the U.S., but only briefly before his fall from grace in 2006 on charges of embezzlement and accounting fraud in Korea. Daewoo went bankrupt and GM eventually bought most of its assets, later changing the brand name to Chevrolet.

But before that happened, I traveled to India to tour Delphi’s new plant that was supplying engine parts to the Daewoo factory nearby. The industrial park, which was located miles from the city of Bangalore, in southern India, was in its infancy and the supplier was forced to provide its own power plant and water supply.

Although a modern factory, robots were few, labor was cheap and workers were proud. On weekends, employees would bring their families to stroll through the Japanese gardens that Delphi had created near the plant. After the madness of the crowded city and its chaotic traffic jams, the gardens provided a place where tranquility ruled and people could dream.

There were other memorable trips, among them Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Geneva and Sao Paulo, that provided great insight – places where I could observe firsthand the vehicles our foreign correspondents wrote about and the needs of the people who drove them.

And then, in Shakespearean fashion, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 descended, bringing heartache and change to the international automotive community.

In the U.S., GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Ford hunkered down to ride out the storm. Those were unimaginable dark times for global car makers and suppliers, and no one involved, including the automotive media, was sure they would have a job at the end of the day.

The U.S. industry managed to hang on, helped by government loans, and sales and production continue their upward trajectory today. In Europe, the economy is beginning to level off and hopes are that automakers will see full recovery in the next three to five years. Meanwhile, Asia-Pacific continues its assent, led by China; Russia is a growing player; and the Middle East and Africa are expanding their market presence.

However, I couldn’t have asked for a better closure to the last full year of my Ward’s career than the news that Mary Barra is taking charge of GM, smashing the glass ceiling into a thousand smithereens.

The day the story broke, I was visiting my family, and my 9-year-old granddaughter asked me how the automaker decided whether to promote a man or a woman to run one of the world’s biggest companies. They chose a woman, I told her as my heart soared, because she deserved it. Now that dear reader is a story for the ages.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Dec 23, 2013

You can look back on a road professionally driven.

on Dec 24, 2013

Enjoy your retirement Barbara!
My 2-cents regarding the last part of the article is that our corporate management system is flawed.

No CEO should ever be the chairman of the board, or even a board member. The fox is not a good choice to watch over the hen house. This should be engraved in corporate "constitutions"!

The selection of a new CEO should never be determined by the influence of one person.
Ideally, the board should narrow the selection down to 3 people, and then let the owners of the company (the shareholders) vote to select the next CEO.

It's unfortunate that most of our boards are nothing but rubber stamps, and many of the members serve at a dozen other boards. Their job becomes to attend a meeting and collect the fees, but never to rock the boat!

It is also sad that boards of directors have not been held responsible when a company goes bankrupt.
Until we start seeing directors going to jail, and their assets confiscated, they will continue to be rubber stamps.

If it was up to me, board members would also be from major share holders who have major investment in a company, not an outsider who doesn't care if the company sinks or floats (aside from caring about their fee for the next board meeting).

Our laws that govern boards of directors need to be reviewed.

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

Contributors

Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at WardsAuto.com, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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