published July 9, 2020 in Warp & Woof
General Motors, Decline and Fall,
1980 – 2009
Founded in Flint, Michigan in 1908, the corporation that ushered in the automobile age in America and came to dominate the nation’s industrial economy by the 1970s, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy just after celebrating its centennial.
In 1980, journalist/folklorist Ed Cray published his history of that corporation, Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times. GM then held a 46 per cent share of the domestic U.S. auto market. Cray notes it had been over 50 per cent in the early to mid-1960s, inviting threats of anti-trust action from Congress, amplifying anger at GM manufacturing decisions concerning safety and lethargic pursuit of emissions reduction. The Boards of Directors in those days were confident they could ride over these assaults. They were right — so long as sales and employment were strong and stock valuation high. I certainly felt no insecurity growing up as a teenager in a Flint GM family!
But there was an unseen threat building, starting in the 1970s, which should have foretold a deepening challenge to GM’s place in the automotive market.
It came from Japan, with its much younger automobile industry looking toward export markets, not just in the U.S., but around the world. The first Toyotas and Datsuns appeared on the West Coast in the late 1950s. A curiosity at first with little penetration even in California. But that penetration grew and went nationwide by the mid-70s. GM management did recognize that there was something peculiarly competitive about Japanese manufacturing. They sought to learn more about it via partnership with Toyota. NUMMI (New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc.) was formed in the early ‘80s at a closed GM plant in Fremont, California (since sold to Tesla). It produced both Chevrolets and Toyotas side-by-side on the same assembly line.
But NUMMI failed to change “The General.” What General Motors couldn’t understand was that the secret of Japanese manufacturing, and growing preference of U.S. consumers, had nothing to do with efficiency of the machinery in the plant. It was not the “culture” of employees (the old GM workers were rehired in Fremont). Instead, it was mainly the culture of management. The Fremont plant was run differently from other GM assembly plants, following the Japanese model. But apparently, corporate management failed to notice a fundamentally different job design. Workers in Fremont rotated among many different jobs, rather than simply tightening the same bolt every day for an eight-hour shift on thousands of cars.
GM had advance warning of this problem from the wildcat strike at Lordstown, Ohio in the early ‘70s – where sabotage led to slowdowns and generally low production quality of the new “import killer” small car launched there, the Chevrolet Vega. Production rates were punishing, workers took it out on the product. Yet corporate management took no notice. After the “experiment” at NUMMI, Japanese style “relational management” never spread to other plants. The Vega’s design was considered flawed, too, not merely its manufacturing quality. General Motors could not see its employees as anything more than cost centers, whether hourly and salaried engineers. The public could see the effects.
“Corporate culture” has become a popular trope over the last thirty years. It probably had its origin in the sad story of General Motors’ decline. The corporation had its beginning in the early days of the automobile, in an environment analogous to how we thought of Silicon Valley in the 1980s. It was where entrepreneurial ventures based on engineering advances were the foundation of economic growth. Billy Durant, the founder of the corporation, was the embodiment of that entrepreneurial, risk-all, American myth that surrounded figures like Steve Jobs in later times. Durant’s genius (some would call it recklessness) was his willingness to take a chance on a bevy of garage tinkerers he met in Michigan. The first of them was Flint mechanic David Buick, struggling with his own version of a horseless carriage. His Buick automobile was the brand that started General Motors. Durant, however, did not build the GM corporate culture. The myth of that industrial spirit was, instead, created by Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan led an ever more centralizing corporate Board through the 1920s and 1930s. The stable of brands assembled by Durant and his early associates had all been managed independently at the engineering and production level. They always had shared technology and parts, but Sloan made them mere “divisions,” subservient to the General Motors Board of Directors, directed jointly from Detroit and Wall Street. Sloan was the archetype modern corporatist.
Sloan organized the corporation around profit centers and marketing concepts. Any original ideas for products or engineering had to clear rigorous financial hoops – the “bean counters.” The overwhelming strength of the industrial engine this strategy created caused General Motors to be perceived as a key factor for allied victory when World War II came. Its then-president, William S. Knudsen, became FDR’s head of the War Production Board.
But, after the war, that old, inherently conservative, midwestern corporate culture returned — unable to focus its marketing on anything but the ego-enhancing product differentiation that Sloan had pioneered starting in the 1920s. The five automotive brands that GM successfully hawked during the postwar years (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac) were distinguished mostly by size and flash – what would today be called “bling.” All were built on a similar platform with more engineering in common than unique. Chevrolets and Cadillacs were built during the period to be fundamentally the same, different enough only to make a convincing argument that the higher-priced brand was somehow “better.” This was, of course, illusion – manufacturing standards and quality control were identical at all GM plants.
GM corporate culture could not grasp the reason for the increasing success of Japanese imports through the 1970s and ‘80s. It was not their cars’ designs, but a combination of several factors. There was the above-mentioned relational style of management in plants (and with suppliers); the uncomfortable fact that legacy costs were low at the much younger Japanese firms (not as many retirees collecting pensions and benefits); and, yes, a less risk-averse product-planning style, greater willingness to take chances on new designs without the relentless bottom-line calculations, the Wall Street side, that dominated GM decision-making. It was the old company, Toyota the young company!
When the UAW chose to strike General Motors in 2007, the walkout lasted three days. But three days lost production was not enough to change GM’s ways. Market share in the U.S. by then was down to only 20 per cent, a far cry from thirty years earlier. The public had caught on, even if management had not. GM was a global enterprise, but European market share was declining as well, and China was just getting started. South American (primarily Brazilian) operations were significant, but not on the scale of North American or European. When Wall Street was hit by the 2008 crash, the General finally took off his stars and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, the corporation’s 101st anniversary. Only a massive U.S. government bailout saved GM from liquidation.
Arising from the ashes, the “new” General Motors, General Motors Company, LLC, promised to be leaner and better – not necessarily meaner. But global market share, even after selling off subsidiaries, and shuttering brands (Hummer, Opel, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, others), has not revived over the ensuing decade. By 2019, U.S. market share had eroded even further, to about 17 per cent. Had the General learned anything?
CEO Mary Barra has flirted with new products, especially electric vehicles, and claims the company will transition completely to EVs (well, 70 per cent by 2040), but we’ll see. The plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt was discontinued in 2019, with no replacement named. Lordstown, site of the painful wildcat strike decades earlier, was not reconfigured, but closed – then sold to a start-up who will manufacture all-electric pickup trucks there soon. Will the GM Cruise Division, formed to manufacture autonomous vehicles at its Hamtramck plant, ever see the light of day?
If I were a prudent investor, I would not buy GM stock.