a bit rant about "Chryslerberus" this week at Autoextremist www.autoextremist.com
March 26, 2008
The Voice of the Customer Gone Wild.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Some people think that I’ve been far too hard on the folks out in Auburn Hills, after all, Cerberus CEO Stephen Feinberg has likened his company’s efforts to “save” Chrysler as being part and parcel of fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. Feinberg’s quest was even referred to as being his “patriotic” duty to do so by his Apologist in Chief, “Minimum Bob” Nardelli, the ex-Home Depot guy who so far has truly distinguished himself as being hands down the wrong guy at the wrong time in charge of the wrong company, by the way.
Memo to our AE readers: It’s not as if I have to go out of my way to find things to write about when it comes to Chrysler. As a matter of fact, I have studiously avoided writing about the highly-compensated bunglers out in Auburn Hills, because if I didn’t I could have easily written about them every week.
And now, here we go again, because those wacky, wonderful folks who give new meaning to the term utter futility are back front and center with yet another lame-brained scheme to engage America’s car-buying consumers.
Let’s review a few things first, shall we? Remember, Cerberus Capital Management is the company that professes to be visionary stewards of the fabric of America instead of the churn-and-burn specialists that they actually are. Lest anyone get the wrong impression here, they’re not the Little Sisters of Charity by any means. They’re in it for the money – and that’s fine, man, as The Dude would say – we’re into profit just as much as the other guy around here, I just don’t like it when Cerberus pretends to be something they’re not, which they seem to do on a daily basis.
Make no mistake, when Cerberus jumped head first into the idea of taking Chrysler off of Daimler’s hands (after the Germans had finished running it well and truly into the ground), they had gold-dipped sugar plums dancing in their heads – because there was gold in them thar Auburn Hills!
They’ve rarely been wrong before, and besides, how tough could the car business be? After all, the so-called Cerberus culture still hinges on the residual “Masters of the Universe” mentality left over from the 80s version of Wall Street, and they figured no one could outsmart them, especially a dying vestige of a rust-belt industry slumped against the ropes.
Oh how wrong they were.
Despite spouting glowing phrases like “we’re in this for the long haul” and “we’re going to do justice to this iconic American brand,” Cerberus found out in about ten minutes that they had gotten themselves into a mess that they were ill-equipped to handle. On top of a lurid set of negatives – a dismal product mix, disillusioned dealers, virtually nonexistent cash flow and the fact that the majority of the company’s manufacturing (at least in the plants that are still open) is going directly into the rental car fleets, Cerberus was sailing Detroit’s version of the Titanic into the iceberg-filled waters of the worst U.S. economy in years.
To make matters even worse, Cerberus went out and actually recruited Bob Nardelli to run the whole show, which made the efficacy of this enterprise suspect from the get-go. Then, they went out and hired a disgruntled Jim Press away from Toyota. Press, who had been moved up and out of the day-to-day fray at the Japanese automaker and who was just itching for something of substance to do after being disrespected by his Japanese handlers, yielded to the siren call of a giant backend payoff (estimated at $52 million) should the Cerberus turnaround of Chrysler succeed. That it required flipping his personal “switch” and disavowing 23 years of blatant anti-Detroit bashing while misleading the industry media on a regular basis - exposing his built-in duplicities for one and all to see - was something he hoped we’d all forget to notice. We didn’t.
Was this a corporate marriage made in heaven? Hardly. The fact that Press and Nardelli don’t speak is common knowledge. Though repeatedly denied, these two have about as much in common as Barack and Hillary. Press views Nardelli as an interloping mercenary lightweight who is grossly unfit to hold sway on key product decisions (and he’s dead right on this count, of course). While Nardelli is convinced that he’s the smartest guy in the room – any room - which tends to get in the way of listening, unless you fancy the dulcet tones of your own voice, or the sound of one hand clapping.
Oh, I almost forgot, added to this unwieldy clash of egos was one Deborah Meyer, an ex-Toyota marketing maven who was hired before Jim Press was hired. The problem? Jim Press doesn’t care for Ms. Meyer. The other problem? Nardelli has little use for Meyer either, trusting his personal marketing guru - the relentlessly overhyped Peter Arnell, instead.
So what does Ms. Meyer do to stake her claim in this mess? She comes up with the idea of recruiting up to 5,000 people to become members of something called the Customer Advisory Board, which will be an online forum where Chrysler employees will listen to direct input from interested parties – and then go forth to allegedly build better Chrysler products. This is all part of Meyer’s “We listen” ad campaign, which is trying to convince the American car-buying consumer public that by listening to its customers, Chrysler will make its future cars and trucks great.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this is akin to letting the inmates run the asylum, only this won’t be some modern day, feel good remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rather, it will be the automotive industry equivalent of The Voice of the Customer Gone Wild.
Creating forums to listen to the voice of the customer? How about if they just set up listening kiosks at America’s shopping malls to soak up the kaleidoscope of cumulative wisdom generated by your average gaggle of Teen Queens about the vicissitudes of the car business?
Meyer was quoted as saying, “We want to harness insights and customer dreams into things we can use concretely with our different groups, such as engineering, design, marketing.”
Well, I guess if you can’t come up with the goods on your own, why not, right? Right. Grasping at straws doesn’t even begin to convey the lunacy of this move.
While Chrysler soaks up the white noise from their touchy-feely customer forums and contemplates the wonder of it all, other car companies (at least the good ones, anyway) will go about the serious business of designing, engineering and executing the best cars and trucks they can possibly bring to the street.
While Chrysler listens to its “Customer Advisory Board” and pauses to make sure everyone gets a collective group hug for their efforts, other car companies will put the pedal down – hard – and disappear down the road.
So, when it comes to the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight out in Auburn Hills, I guess I won’t run out of things to write about anytime soon.
After all, you just can’t make this **** up, as we like to say.
Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.