Commentary

Maybe the third time will be the charm, and billionaire Kirk Kerkorian actually will create something of value by investing in a Detroit auto maker this time. But given his track record, that’s unlikely.

Under the guise of enhancing shareholder value, Kerkorian and his advisor Jerry York, a former Chrysler executive, have been making life miserable for a succession of auto maker executives since the mid-1990s. The duo were part of a failed attempt to take over Chrysler in 1995.

In 2005 and 2006, they acquired a 10% stake in GM and, among other things, pressured the auto maker to create a global partnership with Renault and Nissan.

And now they are after Ford.

Raiders such as Kerkorian love to express contempt for entrenched corporate executives, saying they have built their careers on self-interest rather than doing what’s best for shareholders.

As the long-time top executive of a company that has been struggling financially and losing market share for years, it can be argued that GM CEO Rick Wagoner was fair game for Kerkorian and York. They tried to undermine, embarrass and bully him at every turn.

But more importantly, Kerkorian and York wasted Wagoner’s time and the time of dozens of other top executives, insisting they drop everything to investigate boondoggles such as a hook-up with Renault-Nissan.

The suggestion GM was considering such a move temporarily jacked up its stock price, as did the mere hint that Wagoner would be forced out and Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn would come in to run all three companies.

But a comprehensive study revealed there were few synergies between GM and Renault-Nissan, and we now know that Ghosn barely can manage two giant auto makers, let alone three. The whole thing was a bad idea.

When GM’s board finally started standing up to Kerkorian, he cashed in his stock – at a considerable profit – and left town, no worse for the wear.

However, if you want to know why GM has fallen behind on its recovery plan, Kerkorian is a major reason. He created a huge distraction that wasted countless executive manhours that could have been far better spent.

Now he and York are back, buying up a big chunk of Ford stock and pushing an agenda that likely will include selling Volvo, killing Mercury and other ideas Ford executives already have considered and abandoned.

But Ford’s Alan Mulally does not fit the template of the CEO Kerkorian and York love to hate: He’s new, he’s from outside the industry and his turnaround is making real progress.

Mulally also has hired some top new talent, such as former Toyota and Lexus marketing whiz Jim Farley.

Mulally turned around Boeing Commercial Airlines and had a hand in engineering some of the most successful aircraft in the world. Farley was the guy behind some of the best marketing plans of the most successful auto maker in the world.

Mulally and Farley need to focus on the task at hand and not be forced to waste their time sitting in meetings, taking phone calls and otherwise pursuing brainstorms from Kerkorian and York, all of which are aimed at making a fast buck at the expense of the long-term health of the company.

Ford’s executives, board of directors, shareholders and employees must stand up to Kerkorian immediately and make it clear that he needs to focus on creating long-term value at Ford or leave town. And they also should advise him not to let the door hit him on the way out.

dwinter@wardsauto.com