Exactly a decade ago, Detroit’s automakers were in crisis as the broader world economy descended into chaos. There’s another crisis unfolding in Detroit now, but it’s not so obvious, even if it is just as real. And while the world’s economy is not yet out of control, there are alarm bells ringing from Beijing to Paris, from London to Frankfurt to Oshawa and all over.
Let’s start with the Detroit car companies.
Ford Motor, reports indicate, is in advanced talks designed to produce an alliance with the sprawling Volkswagen Group. This week, VW CEO Herbert Diess met with U.S. President Donald Trump to provide an update on what now appears a fait accompli – VW’s eventual takeover of Ford.
Yes, yes, Diess and Ford executive chairman Billy Ford have bandied about the term “alliance,” but this sort of talk is a ruse. VW doesn’t do alliances with equals; VW, a multi-brand car company, takes control of acquisitions, period. Just ask Porsche.
Ford is open to this alliance because for the last three years, the company has been grossly mismanaged. Since Alan Mulally left as CEO, Ford has been led by former CEO Mark Fields, whom everyone who ever met him knew to be an empty suit topped with a bad mullet. He was a disaster and was fired.
Now Ford is led by CEO Jim Hackett, the former head of a furniture company and the interim athletic director of a U.S. college. Hackett, like Fields, is way out of his depth. Running a global car company is hard. It requires expertise in everything from manufacturing, to government relations, to the most complex research and development activities. The car business is the most complex industry on the planet. Hackett knows work stations and football, but the auto industry is beyond his education and experience.
In a word, then, Ford is desperate. Ford, even after bouncing back from the financial crisis, remains a U.S.-based pickup and SUV company with almost no presence in China (the world’s largest auto market) and a hobbled operation in Europe. Ford’s luxury brand, Lincoln, is a catastrophe, the product of decades of mismanagement. Ford is way behind in autonomous vehicle technology and electrification, too. Pickup and SUV sales are slowing, which means Ford is just months away from a financial crisis of its own making.
VW wants Ford because Ford has the pickup and SUV business it does not have and cannot afford to create in North America. There are still profits to be made in light trucks and VW wants to mine them to pay for its eventual transition to electrification, which was also recently announced.
VW is strong in Asia, especially China, so there is not need to integrate Ford into its Asian business. VW is strong in Europe, too. So, again, no need to worry about phasing out Ford of Europe, either. Ford will provide VW with the light truck business in the U.S. and Canada that it does not have and will never develop on its own. And Ford gives VW the manufacturing capacity in North America that VW does not want to fund and is impatient to rev up. This marriage works for VW, but spells the end of Ford as a stand-alone company.
Which brings us to General Motors. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, recently announced thousands of layoffs, the closing of a fistful of plants, other restructuring moves and most troubling of all (unless you are one of the laid off workers) the end of the Volt hybrid, or as GM initially called it, “extended range electric vehicle.”
GM announced on Nov. 19 that it would discontinue building the Volt in a wave of layoffs and plant closings that saw both the Volt’s factory and that of the Chevy Cruze that underpinned it cut off. As a fuel-efficient small hatchback, the Volt was no longer meeting sales targets. This decision is both a tragedy and a travesty. It’s a tragedy because the Volt represent engineering excellence. It’s a travesty because it’s a distorted representation of wise restructuring. For those keeping count, in the span of less than three decades, it’s fair to say GM has managed to kill the electric car twice.
Let’s be clear. The ingenious Voltec gas-electric powertrain is a wonderful achievement. Surely GM can find a place for this superb plug-in hybrid technology. But now that the Volt is dead, there does not seem to be a place for the Voltec system. This at a time when global automakers are all racing to electrify their lineups. Will GM actually build an SUV with the Voltec system? Nothing is certain. I would wager that GM will discard this asset, a foolhardy act and something worthy of Rick Wagoner, not Mary Barra.
What can we say about GM’s future, then? Based on Barra’s Nov. 19 restructuring announcement, it’s fair to conclude that GM is placing its biggest bet on Cruise Automation, the San Francisco-based driverless car company that GM bought for $581 million and is now worth some $14.6 billion (all figures US dollars). GM is sending its president, Dan Amman, the former investment banker, to take over Cruise in the new year.
That move along demonstrates that GM sees Cruise as central to its future. But is it? Who knows, really? Silicon Valley start-ups come and go like I change socks, most of them over-promising and under-delivering. There is no guarantee that Cruise will end up the autonomous technology leader; it might just be the next Netscape. Cruise could go bust as quickly as it zoomed to being worth billions.
In the meantime, GM has been cutting and slashing in all sorts of places. GM jettisoned its European operation, sold out in Russia, killed its efforts in India and is phasing out most of its passenger car lineup. GM is a shadow of its greatest self now, and literally half the company it was at bankruptcy. It’s hard to see where GM is going. We know for certain the Volt, the centrepiece of GM’s high-tech ambitions a decade ago when emerging from bankruptcy, won’t be part of the future.
Now to FCA. Ugh.
Former FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne died, sadly, some months ago and for industry watchers that know this business, that was the signal of an impending crisis. FCA is a loose collection of undercapitalized brands. FCA has for the last decade struggled with the capital requirements of a global car company. Marchionne was the glue that held it all together, through his brilliance, guile, charm, derring-do and shear genius for business. Most important of all, he had the trust of the Agnelli family which controls FCA.
Today, FCA is the Ram pickup and Jeep. Period. Those are the parts that make loads and loads of money. The rest — from Dodge, to Fiat to Alfa Romeo — is a money pit. FCA simply does not have the capital or expertise to turn around this haphazard collection of nameplates. For now, FCA shoulders on, but any sort of economic downturn will thrust FCA into a death spiral. The sharks of the car business are waiting for the Jeep and Ram fire sale. I don’t think they have long to wait.
In the meantime, FCA CEO Mike Manley, Marchionne’s successor, soldiers on. But he’s no Sergio. Everyone who knows this business knows that. And I don’t mean to slight Manley. It’s just that Marchionne was one-of-a-kind and at FCA, I would argue irreplaceable. He knew that, I am certain. Which is why he stayed on the job even as his health suffered and died as CEO.
Here’s the takeaway: Detroit-based, or Detroit-centered, car companies are in deep trouble. They are all profitable for the time being, but each is racing into a period of crisis and there will be no Obama administration there to appoint someone like former Obama car czar Steve Rattner to sort things out. President Trump? Who thinks he’s capable of steering these car companies out of a crack-up and into recovery?
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