Repentance may bring salvation for Big Three
The phone rings and Hoot McInerney, the legendary car dealer, is on the
other end of the line.
"People don't like us," he tells me. "The three of those guys" -- GM chairman Rick Wagoner, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda -- "have got to get together, stand up and say we know the other 48 states despise us and say, 'We've changed.' "
McInerney, consigliere to auto bosses past and present, dealer for 50 years with an empire that once stretched as far as Hawaii, a plain speaker when far too many pull their punches, is just getting warmed up.
There is Washington's unofficial declaration of war on Detroit, evinced by the Senate's aggressive fuel economy bill. And the nagging (mis)perception that metal coming from Motown plants is still as crappy as it was in the '70s and '80s. And the reticence of Detroit to make its case -- all of it is eating at the 78-year-old.
"But they don't do it, and why they don't, I don't know. People don't think we have to do that," he disagrees, offering his own riff on redemption. "We were wrong. We weren't around then. We are here to say we're different. We don't have those kinds of attitudes. We don't build that kind of product."
Most of which, I agree, is true. GM played the contrition card a few years back, calling the campaign "the road to redemption." It got some attention, but not nearly enough to erase decades of ill will shaped by a toxic mixture of shoddy products, towering arrogance and very little of either from its fiercest foreign competitors.
Ol' Hoot has diagnosed a problem and proffered a treatment. But his patient, already scarred by multiple surgeries, transfusions and amputations, feels like it is closer to being too far gone to save than it has probably ever been.
Outside the industrial heartland (and inside it, depending on who you talk to), the distaste for Detroit and what it supposedly represents is palpable. You can see it in message boards and e-mails or hear it in voice mails, the poisonous rhetoric coming from Democratic leaders (and some Republicans) in Congress and attack ads from
You can see it in derision for the United Auto Workers, experiencing the most painful smackdowns -- health care givebacks, the concessionary Delphi contract, plant closings and massive buyouts -- in the union's history.
You can see it when explanations of Detroit's predicament are dismissed as "whining" and "complaining" and punctuated with the kind of Schadenfreude (German for joy at someone else's pain) that's not only mean, but shocking in its intensity.
'No one is coming to save us'
As he often does, Hoot's got a good point when he generalizes that "people don't like us." Here's another generalization, borrowed from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's last State of the City speech, that applies, too:
"No one is coming to save us," he told Detroiters. He couldn't be more right, whether about the city he leads or the indigenous industry that built it.
Both are on their own. Republicans and Democrats outside Detroit's shrinking sphere of influence have moved on, a big chunk of Wall Street is moving on, growing numbers of consumers are moving on.
What's it going to take to reverse that dynamic? Probably more of the tough, transformational change we've seen in Detroit the past two years -- recapitalization, rationalization, products for the times, a competitive business model that embraces the world as it is, not as it was.
"We're paying for those sins," McInerney tells me, rightly. "We can turn around."
Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can reach him at (313) 222-2106, or .
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