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Big, bold moves: Detroit Three CEOs poise the companies for success.

After a couple of years straight out of a surrealistic doomsday novel, 2011 could be a breakout year for the Detroit Three automakers and their CEOs.

As part of the unprecedented times this community has faced--and survived--each of the Detroit Three is headed by a CEO who isn't originally from around here.




They came to Detroit from different directions with different skill sets, and they came because they were needed.

Since they arrived in town, the three CEOs--Alan Mulally at Ford, Sergio Marchionne at the Chrysler Group and Dan Akerson at General Motors--have been preoccupied with restructuring, cutting costs and ducking wave after wave of economic setbacks.

But that's about to change, thanks to the way they have done their jobs and an auto market that is slowly but surely heading back to a more normal pace.

Automotive News reports the analysts' consensus sales volume for 2011 is 12.7 million cars and light trucks. Some of the more bullish prognosticators say 14 million, given the right set of economic circumstances.

That's still a long way from the 17 million units the industry sold annually until the recession tanked the economy. But even the consensus volume of 12.7 million units would be is a solid 10 percent improvement over 11.5 million units sold in 2010.

The Detroit Three are ready to cash in.

But it hasn't been easy.

Since 2006 when he was hired away from Boeing, Mulally has recast Ford into a single, global entity, using the "One Ford" concept to unify product development, overhaul the company's culture and eliminate unnecessary overhead. Unlike the two cross-town rivals, Mulally--with the solid backing of the Ford family--did it by hocking the company to get the necessary capital, which ultimately kept them from succumbing to a government directed bankruptcy.

Ford's approach has made it tougher to cut costs and get debt off the balance sheet, which GM and Chrysler did with the wave of a pen in Chapter 11. But Ford's go-it-alone attitude has resonated with consumers.

Sergio Marchionne became Chrysler's CEO as part of the Obama administration's plan to save Chrysler by hooking it up with Fiat. Having already restructured Fiat, Marchionne is the only out-of-towner with actual automotive experience.

He set a focused recovery plan and stayed with it. Chrysler conserved working capital and kept a low profile until it had new product ready for market. While GM and Ford dropped brands, Marchionne bonded Chrysler and Fiat product development, adding Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo to Chrysler's product mix.

Akerson has only been GM's CEO for a few months. But the Annapolis graduate with investment experience across several industries joined GM's board during the restructuring. Already on his watch GM has executed a wildly successful initial public offering, helping to shake its image as Government Motors.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have taken different routes to cut costs, reshape brand images and load up dealership showrooms with great new product.

It's still too soon for any of them to spike the ball in the end zone. But that day is coming.

Edward Lapham is executive editor of Automotive News.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Lapham, Edward
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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