Blunt Words from Delphi’s Miller

April 15, 2008

It’s not easy knowing what might happen tomorrow. So try to predict what will happen six months or a year from now, especially if your words will be captured in print. That’s what happened with Steve Miller, the plain-speaking CEO of giant automotive supplier Delphi Corp., whose new book, The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies, is finally hitting bookstores around the country.

During a Tuesday morning meeting with the Detroit Automotive Press Association, Miller gave the back story on his book, and followed it up with some typically blunt assessments of the state of the auto industry and the people that run it. Some of the most direct comments, as always, Miller reserved for himself.

He began working on Turnaround, he explained, in late 2005, right after he steered Delphi into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as the only apparent way to force much-needed changes on the troubled supplier. Miller said he expected to have the book in stores by Thanksgiving 2007, but it was delayed, in part, by Delphi’s problems emerging from bankruptcy.

The problem is that with the long lead times of the publishing world, Miller had to anticipate what the world would look like when Turnaround went on sale, and in several instances, he was wrong. “I wrote about my exit from Delphi,” he acknowledged, but that hasn’t happened yet.” And, in fact, the Delphi story has changed quite a bit, lately, particularly after one of its key investors decided to back out of a $2.55 billion capital infusion that would have propelled the supplier out of Chapter 11.

Miller himself has had a rollercoaster ride in the media, over the years, hailed, at times, as a hero, and at others, characterized as an example of corporate greed. Ironically, he noted, during his meeting, he has received less than other senior Delphi managers for his work. (He took $1 a year for the first two years and won’t get any of the lucrative stock options for sticking around after the company emerges from bankruptcy.

The executive insisted he was “disappointed” by the media’s focus on the “juiciest quotes” in his book, including some harsh criticism of labor leader Ron Gettelfinger. While the book insists that the United Auto Workers Union president would, “probably have us all run out of town with tar and feathers,” Miller, on Tuesday, also praised Gettelfinger for taking some difficult steps to help the Detroit auto industry regain its competitive footing.

The self-effacing Miller admitted he’d probably make a number of changes in his book, today, and not just getting things updated. He would likely limit the amount of time he spent writing about his late wife, Maggie, and her losing, 10-week battle with cancer. He’d also likely remove, Miller added, with an uncharacteristic blush, references to their first sexual encounter. “They told me sex sells books.”

Turnaround originally was meant to be a fairly straightforward take on Miller’s views on business, but it eventually took on the more personal tone, leaving his strongly-held opinions to be concentrated into three Op-ed-style essays at the back of the book.

Perhaps the most personal of these regards the challenge of dealing with bankruptcy, “a process (that) in this country needs to be keelhauled,” asserted Miller. It is “much too expensive,” he said, noting that just to handle such things as Chapter 11 legal bills, Delphi has been spending about $150 million annually. “That amount of money,” he lamented, “could be much better spent on new products or better pay for our workers.”

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