Between the Lines: Rick Wagoner Takes on the Critics

Rabid Rick Wagoner, GM's beleaguered CEO, recently responded to increasing calls for his resignation by asking The General's Board of Bystanders for a vote of confidence. While it would be uncharitable to suggest that the Board's thumbs-up is an example of the blind leading the deaf, you gotta give Ricky credit for balls. I mean, what low testosterone corporate manager would risk an Ed Koch-like "How Am I Doing?" after losing more than a dollar per human on the face of planet earth, overseeing a relentless drop in market share and cooking — I mean, "accounting errors"? What in the world could Wagoner say to sweep all THAT under the carpet? For an answer, we turn to Newsweek.

When Rabid Rick's minions offered Newsweek face time, his people and their people decided to People Magazine the deal. In other words, rather than an analytical piece laced with Rick's self-ingesting cyanidal remarks, they agreed on Q&A format. Given limited space and the need to keep readers from returning to their iPods, the format requires some pretty heavy editing. Even so, clocking Rabid Rick's stilted syntax, we think the result is the straight shit. So here, then, is how GM CEO faces the music.

NEWSWEEK: How secure do you feel in your job?
RICK WAGONER: Completely. Because I know in the end all of us are going to be judged on accomplishments, whether we address issues and take advantage of opportunities. And I think we're moving on both fronts frankly pretty well. So I feel very confident.

If Rick Wagoner feels completely secure in his job he's either a liar, stupid or insane. I don't know about you, but I'd feel pretty nervous about being the head cheese if my company lost money, market share and capitalization. I mean, isn't there some kind of three strikes rule for that sort of thing? Anyway, when is it OK to judge Wagoner on his accomplishments? Now would be good...

NW: Some say that because you grew up in the GM culture you're unable to engineer the radical overhaul that's required and that new blood is needed. What do you think of that?
RW: That is so simplistic. These are sophisticated problems with historical tails that run back 80, 90 years. The chance of someone coming in and not understanding our business, making the right calls and doing them in cooperation with key constituencies like dealers and unions, is absolutely microscopic. That would be the biggest risk I've ever heard of.

Obviously, Rabid Rick's never heard of Evel Knievel. Sorry, I don't mean to sound simplistic. I guess I just don't have the historical perspective, the deep cultural understanding needed to analyze GM's vast enterprise and devise suitable rectification. By the same token, I suppose my father's recipe for success — take in more money than you spend — doesn't apply to The General. And that the only person qualified to knock GM's union and dealer heads is the same guy who's been kissing their ass since he graduated from Harvard's MBA program.

NW: What about the coverage has annoyed you the most?
RW: They talk about that we are not moving to address the problems. I want to say, "Excuse me, what part of $15 billion in health care [cuts], 12 plants [closing], 30,000 people [cut], attrition programs, salaried health-care and retirement [cuts], salaried head-count reduction, a new sales and marketing strategy, advancing product programs—what part of that doesn't exhibit not only a sense of urgency, but most importantly a sense of urgency in doing what matters?"

I think it's pretty funny that Newsweek had to put the word "cuts" in brackets to clarify Rick's clarification. Beyond that, what's with "I want to say?" Didn't he just say it? The subtext: Rick is angry. Embattled. Frustrated. Hamstrung. Stifled. Wronged. Misunderstood. Which is only a short SUV ride away from burned-out, paranoid, vindictive and desperate. Wagoner singularly fails to understand that his critics fault him for the limited scope, delayed timing and sluggish pace of his changes.
NW: If Delphi does go on strike, does that make it inevitable that GM will file Chapter 11?
RW: No, there's a lot of footnotes on that. If one plant at Delphi goes on strike for a week? No. I mean it's inconvenient, but conceivably minimal impact on us. If the whole of Delphi goes on strike for a long period of time, well, I don't see why they would do that. It's not in Delphi's interest. It's not in the UAW's interest. And it's not in our interest.

Those guardians of megawealth, Sanford & Bernstein, reckon GM's stockpiling parts for a Delphi strike. Even so, Wagoner's casual dismissal of the possibility of a walkout at its mission-critical parts supplier is worrying. Even if you only consider the psychological impact of union action on GM's shareholders, banks and buyers; a Delphi strike would be "inconvenient" in the same sense that one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.

Rick's inability to directly answer this question highlights two important facts. First, Rick doesn't understand that the UAW sees Delphi as a fight to the death. And second, that he's unwilling to face the full horror of what's ahead. Well, at least publicly.

NW: You're a former CFO: how did GM's accounting errors happen on your watch?
RW: Well, to be perfectly fair, I was last CFO in 1994. But it doesn't mitigate the fact that, hey, mistakes were made.

No wonder GM named a car the Cavalier.
NW: GM's stock-market value is less than a tenth of Toyota's. Why is there so little confidence in GM among investors?
I think people are waiting to see what happens with [the partial sale of] GMAC and Delphi. And they're waiting to see some turn in our business results.

NW: When that turn is coming is a question you won't answer, right?
RW: You got it.


A plan without a timetable is not a plan. It's a hope, a dream, or, if you really think about it, a great big flying leap straight into the unknown. Wagoner's inability to fully articulate his erstwhile turnaround plan is his single greatest failing as a CEO. His unwillingness to show GM's "constituencies" the light at the end of the tunnel makes him completely unsuitable for a leadership position. In case anyone was wondering...
NW: Cadillac has been a great turnaround story. Why can't that same formula be applied to the whole company?
RW: It's not just Cadillac that we've done that with. Hummer, I think, has been extremely successful. The Pontiac Solstice. The Chevy HHR. I think you see it coming out on a regular basis. And just stay tuned for Saturn. This is rolling out as we speak.

Wagoner's answer indicates that he misheard the question; Hummer may be a success (Wagoner only "thinks" so), but it isn't a turnaround story like Cadillac. What of Buick, Pontiac or Saab? While Wagoner earns props for dishing-up the name of two of GM's more interesting products (one of which is still plagued with production delays), I wonder if GM's CEO could articulate Cadillac's "formula." And in case you haven't figured it out already, Wagoner's use of the phrase "this is rolling out"— rather than naming new Saturn models — is yet more evidence that he is, at his core, a bean counter.
NW: This is an incredibly stressful time; how do you sleep at night?
RW: There's been a lot of work, so there hasn't been a lot of time to sleep. The issue has been as much allocating time to sleep as sleeping when one gets to the allocated time.

Disassociation alert! There's no "I" in team, but you'd expect one or two in a personal statement about sleep patterns. More importantly, is Wagoner seriously saying he's too busy to sleep? As a father of four, I can state without equivocation that you do NOT want a sleep-deprived exec at the head of the world's largest automobile manufacturer.

And what's all this about "allocating time to sleep?" If that doesn't make Wagoner sound anal retentive, nothing does. If there's one thing worse than a sleep-deprived exec at the head of the world's largest automobile manufacturer, it's an anal retentive sleep-deprived exec at the head of the world's largest automobile manufacturer.

NW: In 15 months do you still expect to be sitting in this office with things going better?
RW: I have a lot of confidence in the future of this company. I don't think I'm at all unrealistic about the challenges we face. I think the progress we've made in a short period of time is reinforcing the fact as to how much we can take on problems that have been around for 50 years and really move the needle.

At last — literally — Wagoner makes an unambiguous and positive statement about GM's future, and his ability to face reality. Though true, the fifty-year legacy statement is a bit of a cop-out, but hey, we like the sound of Newsweek's "feisty" CEO. Except for one thing: "move the needle." It's a clunky, jargony expression with a dark undertone. In fact, when I'm thinking about GM and hear the words "move the needle," lethal injection springs to mind. Just sayin'.

[by Robert Farago]

GM's Feisty CEO Fights Back Against Critics [Newsweek]

[Jalopnik's Between the Lines column parses the rhetoric of the automotive industry, and the media that covers it, from the point of view of that kid at the back of the class with ADD, a genius IQ and a thirst for mayhem.]

Related:
Between the Lines: Gary Witzenburg on the Cost Disparity Between Domestic and Asian Automakers [internal]