Can the Big Three be restructured into sustainable businesses? And if so, how?
That’s the daunting task facing President Obama’s Automotive Task Force, a group of people with no automotive or operational experience. In other words, the future of the U.S. auto industry now is in the hands of people who have no clue what the industry is about or how to run it.
Of course, the people who do know the industry have run it into the ground, so Obama appointees probably can’t do much worse.
Since their backgrounds are in finance, that’s exactly where the task force appointees will focus their efforts. But once they figure out how to help auto makers sweep the debt off their books, force the United Auto Workers union into competitive contracts and prevent dealers from using franchise laws to sue over brands getting closed down, then what?
Here are three suggestions for the task force to come out of the other end of this crisis with a sustainably profitable auto industry:
- No more company executives on the board of directors. And especially no “two-fers” where the CEO and Chairman are the same. The board is supposed to hold the officers of the company accountable for their performance. But the board needs an arm’s-length distance to maintain its impartiality, and having company officers in the club is too chummy. If the board needs information or advice, it can summon an executive any time it wants. Plus, the board needs to recruit its own members. You can’t let the officers handpick their own bosses.
- o more running the company primarily for the benefit of shareholders. For too long, U.S. auto makers have done everything in their power to increase shareholder return. In the process, they destroyed over $100 billion in shareholder value. How? By trying to slash costs to maximize profitability. That led to foolish practices such as skimping on vehicle interiors and under-investing in development of good small cars. It also allowed the UAW to lock in high wages and benefits, because the cost of a strike hurt short-term earnings. Instead, the primary focus now has to be on surprising and delighting customers. If the Detroit Three does that, stand back and watch the stock prices zoom. Investors always will put their money into auto makers with a hot lineup of products.
- 0No more “guidance” for Wall Street. In their fixation on shareholders, Detroit auto makers have issued short-term predictions of what they expect their earnings-per-share to be, and then did everything in their power to hit those numbers. But it’s impossible to meet long-term goals and objectives when they are regularly disrupted by budget cuts needed to meet the promises made to Wall Street every three months. Quarterly reports are needed to drive financial discipline, but “guidance” forces management to focus too much on analysts rather than customers.
These suggestions, alone, will not turn around the Big Three. Many other things have to change, such as treating suppliers and retailers as true partners. But no amount of restructuring will save these companies until management changes its focus from shareholder value to customer satisfaction.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and the “Autoline Daily” online video newscast.