Howes: War of words in auto circles shouldn’t come as surprise

July 22, 2011

Howes: War of words in auto circles shouldn’t come as surprise


With apologies to Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” you should be shocked, shocked to read that Detroit auto executives talk smack and privately throw F-bombs at one another.

Next thing you know, they’ll be lobbying reporters (off-the-record, natch) to file negative stories about the competition, their nonexistent strategies and the crappy cars and trucks they’re trying to foist on an unsuspecting public.

Oh, wait, they do that, too.

In a new book on Detroit’s implosion and the collapse of two automakers into bankruptcy, my former colleague Bill Vlasic — now Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times — gives voice to some of the industry’s less circumspect personalities and shows just how titanic rivalries can produce such petty potshots.

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of global marketing, sales and service, is quoted as saying in a preproduction version of Vlasic’s book obtained by The Detroit News:

“F— GM. I hate them and their company and what they stand for. And I hate the way they’re succeeding. Ford is back because people trust us. And that is a powerful message. I’m going to beat Chevrolet on the head with bat. And I’m going to enjoy it.”

Ooooo. If you’ve spent any time at all on the phone or over coffee with Ford execs, their PR staffers or just about anyone else associated with the only Detroit automaker free from the taint of an Obama Treasury department bailout, trash talking like that — and worse — is common because it’s been happening, industrywide, forever.

Farley’s sin, if he committed one at all, is one of candor — which he’s committed often in equally barbed comments about his former employer, Toyota Motor Corp.

Welcome to the big leagues. In a fiercely competitive industry where the only things larger than executive comp packages are executive egos, the twin urges to always be right and to rhetorically destroy rivals are exceeded only by the hunger for ever larger executive comp packages and adoration in the media.

Vlasic also quotes Ford scion (and executive chairman) Bill Ford Jr. as saying “GM can be so arrogant. We were known as a culture of infighting. And they are a culture of arrogance.”

Exactly which part of that indictment, leveled by someone who ought to know, isn’t true? GM arrogant? Um, yeah, even now. Ford beset by infighting? When has Ford, whose internal politics he once described as more Byzantine than czarist Russia, not been riven by internal politicking, backstabbing and flattery of Ford family members?

With the arguable exception of the era of Alan Mulally — who doesn’t tolerate infighting or trashing rivals — Ford’s cultural tendency toward automotive superiority in the smallish pond of Detroit is deeply embedded.

But it’s not exclusive, witness General Motors Co. CEO Dan Akerson’s recent benediction for Ford’s Lincoln brand in comments to The News. Or the time GM’s retired manufacturing chief, Gary Cowger, told me in Wiesbaden, Germany, more than a decade ago that Chrysler was holding a “fire sale” of excess inventory.

His prescient observation, offered with scant acknowledgment of GM’s own steadily mounting problems, culminated in Chrysler posting its first operating loss in a decade. The resulting mess also began the unwinding of the disastrous Daimler-Chrysler union.

Then there’s Volkswagen AG, the bad-boy pot-stirrer of the global auto business. Of course, CEO Martin Winterkorn understood the likely turmoil from his recent suggestion that GM’s Adam Opel AG unit — a direct competitor to VW across Europe — would be a better fit with, say, Hyundai of South Korea.

Which is exactly why he did it. It’s classic: level the criticism, walk it back and get the desired effect nevertheless. In a 24-7 globally wired cloud, it’s there to stay, somewhere.

And there’s Sergio Marchionne, the Italian-born and Canadian-bred CEO of Chrysler Group LLC. A Detroit auto show or two ago, I asked him what he thought about VW’s future goal to produce 10 million vehicles a year. His response: “We saw that movie. It’s called World War II.”

The surprise isn’t that these captains of industry verbally bludgeon one another outside the confines of scrums and interviews. The surprise is that any of it would be considered shocking or crass in a world that traffics in much worse every hour of every day.

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