Flak-in-the-Box

December 9, 2005
For any journalist working the Detroit automotive beat, this month's calendar is filled with dinners, parties and receptions hosted by carmakers and their suppliers. In years past, we "boys on the bus" would make a game of guessing how well each company was doing by the size of the shrimp. Some years back, when Ford pulled through one of its periodic downturns, it played along, serving up langostinos the size of a fist.

The tenor at these evening events runs to the serious. Oh, there's plenty of small talk, but in-between asking about Christmas travel plans, you'll try to slip in a couple questions about the competitive situation, fuel prices and plants closings. The tone was decidedly different at Chrysler's gathering last night. It helped, of course, holding the annual gathering at the Parade Company, the warehouse used by the folks who put on Detroit's annual Thanksgiving Parade. So as soon as I dusted the snow off my glasses, I was greeted by the Grinch and Alice in Wonderland's giant caterpillar ... and a running Merry-Go-Round. At the other end of the warehouse was a working bumper car set-up. I've taken my share of shots at senior executives before, but it's not often you get to give a full-force body slam to a CEO.

A good sense of humor seems to be a requirement at Chrysler lately. And new boss Tom LaSorda is just following the lead set by Dieter Zetsche, his predecessor and new chairman of parent company, DaimlerChrysler AG. Not only did Zetsche keep his bushy, trademark moustache in site all evening, but you could win fake Dieter 'staches on some of the carnival games.

Of course it helps to have the likes of Jason Vines serving as PR ringmaster. The occasional stand-up comic and full-time Chrysler public relations chief has a manic capacity for switching from somber to silly in an instant. And sometimes putting a humorous twist to a serious topic. Serving as a magician's assistant, he helped saw LaSorda in half -- before inadvertently giving away the secret of the act. Switching costumes fast enough to make Madonna jealous, Vines also performed as the Flak-in-the-Box. Stealing a page from the old, manic Gallagher, he then proceeded to smash a watermelon with the words, "Big Three," written on it.

Chrysler's top flak would very much like hacks like me to stop lumping Chrysler in with the rest of the Detroit automakers. Technically, as a unit of DCX, he's right. Which is all the more ironic. It took the Germans to help Chrysler rediscover its American roots. And with products like the 300C, the automaker is the only one of the Big Three -- er, Detroit-based manufacturers -- to actually be solidifying its share and making money. I'm not sure if I'm ready to write off the idea of a Big Three just yet. For one thing, Chrysler certainly has to prove that its recent success is more than just a short-lived phenomenon. But they have made it clear that even if they didn't offer the biggest shrimp this year, they certainly get the joke and can laugh as loud as anyone.

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