Biggest Automaker Needs Big Changes

The Pontiac Aztek was designed by committee and didn't sell.
The Pontiac Aztek was designed by committee and didn't sell. (General Motors)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005

In the mid-1990s, then-General Motors Corp. Chairman John G. Smale decided to bring the world's biggest automaker a dose of the give-the-people-what-they-want ethic that had animated Smale's old company, Procter & Gamble Co. And what the people wanted was sexy, edgy and a bit off-key; in short, a head-turner.

General Motors' culture took over from there. Design would be by committee, the focus groups extensive. And production would have to stick to a tight budget, with all that sex appeal packed onto an existing minivan platform. The result rolled off the assembly line in 2000: the Pontiac Aztek, considered by many to be one of the ugliest cars produced in decades and a flop from Day One.

The Aztek experience encapsulates the challenge GM executives face as they try to turn around the fortunes of an auto giant seemingly in twilight. In GM's post-World War II heyday, when it owned more than half the U.S. auto market, it could afford the occasional Aztek. Now, health care and pension costs are suffocating. Tensions are rising with GM's unions. And management, labor and industry analysts agree the company simply cannot get past its stubborn inability to create cars and trucks that people want to drive.

Its latest line of vehicles, including the Pontiac G6 and the Buick LaCrosse, has failed to catch fire, while its large sport-utility vehicles are sinking fast under the weight of high gas prices and low appeal.

"That's the big gorilla sitting in the corner of the room," said Gerald C. Meyers, former chief executive of the defunct American Motors Corp. "Just look at the Aztek; it was hokey, nonsensical, ugly -- there are not enough adjectives to describe that vehicle. It . . . was indicative of the failed product development system that has been nurtured over there for so long."

GM executives, privately, are quick to concede the point. "The Aztek was a turning point because it did articulate everything that was wrong with the system," said one GM official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "But it's been like turning the Titanic."

GM chairman and chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. signaled earlier this week that the company's top management was coming to grips with the severity of GM's position. That will mean reducing production, focusing on profit and perhaps even coming to terms with the once unthinkable: Toyota Motor Corp., already the world's most profitable automaker, may soon overtake GM as its largest.

Many GM executives are loath to admit that out loud, but one executive pointed to the comments of Mark R. LaNeve, GM's sales and marketing vice president, in a Detroit News column last month: "The chapter is over," LaNeve told columnist Daniel Howes. "Japan Inc. passed us up. It's old news. Our mindset is -- we've got to fight back."

The stakes in that fight are high. The Fortune 500's third-largest corporation may be considerably smaller than its 1979 peak of 600,000 workers, but it is still home to 110,000 blue-collar laborers and 39,000 salaried staff members. Even after GM sheds 25,000 jobs by 2008, as Wagoner promised, the company will still be one of the largest employers in the United States.

In addition, it pays health insurance costs totaling about $5.6 billion for 1.1 million Americans, making it the nation's largest private health care provider. Of those beneficiaries, roughly 450,000 are retirees and their spouses.

And many of its problems -- in product design, health and pension expenses and in the "legacy" costs of retirees and former workers -- are bedeviling other major corporations, including rival Ford Motor Co. and the steel and airline industries. If corporate management succeeds in shifting pension and health care burdens onto the federal government, what's bad for GM may, in a very tangible sense, be bad for the nation.

The "rapidly rising health care burden is not, in fact, unique to GM," Wagoner warned shareholders Tuesday. "It is a critical national competitiveness issue for the United States, affecting our entire economy's long-tem strength. It's clear that the health care crisis could benefit from stronger leadership by governments at all levels."

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