More of the Same at GM? Or a Real Turnaround in Motion?

November 21, 2005
It was October 1979 and suddenly, it seemed like the world was about to go dark. The U.S. was in the midst of the second Arab oil crisis. Fuel wasn't flowing and the auto industry was going south in a hurry. The Big Three desperately started slashing production, closing plants and cutting jobs. And it was my introduction, as a very young and green reporter, to the ongoing crisis that would define the U.S. auto industry for the next quarter century.

I can't begin to count how many turnaround plans I've written about over the years, especially at General Motors. There was the huge, 1984 reorganization -- which essentially crippled the carmaker for the next two years -- and it was followed, if memory serves, by almost one big shake-up every year for nearly a decade. During the late 1980s, CEO Roger B. Smith and his team announced like clock work, the latest supposed savings. The numbers ran into the tens of billions of dollars. Yet by 1992, GM came within minutes of declaring bankruptcy. Smith's hand-picked successor, Bob Stempel, was ousted, and GM went through another big reorganization. Since then, it's been one change after another. The names and faces frequently change, but the message seems to always be the same: "We've figured it out. We're going to fix it. Trust us."

Ironically, the most telling comment was one current CEO Rick Wagoner made, following the GM annual meeting this year: “If I had a chance to rerun the last five years, we probably would have done a little more thinking about making sure that each product was distinctive and had a chance to be successful.” Wow, what a concept. Product matters. Turnarounds only work when they result in consumers getting more product faster and for a better price.

The Japanese figured that out early on. The Koreans, after an early mis-start, have gotten the message, too. Is it foolish to hope that GM finally has, as well?

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