For Detroit's Auto Chiefs, a Road Trip to Contrition
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
In the category of "okay, now we get it," the chief executives of Detroit's Big Three are driving to Washington to ask Congress for money, instead of taking private jets like they did last time. Which turned out to be a public relations disaster.
Ford chief executive Alan R. Mulally, GM chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. and Chrysler chief executive Robert L. Nardelli are set to testify before a Senate panel Thursday and a House panel Friday. They are asking for billions of dollars in a government loan that they say they need to stay in business and avoid bankruptcy.
All automakers, but especially Detroit's Big Three, are getting hammered by the downturn and credit crunch: There is little appetite for new cars and people who want to buy them can't get loans on favorable terms.
The three executives came hat-in-hand to Washington two weeks ago, each on private corporate jets, and were mercilessly harangued by members of Congress. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said the spectacle was "like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo."
The executives were turned away by Congress and told to explain exactly how they would spend the bailout money.
So yesterday, the three chiefs submitted plans to Congress and began the 520-mile drive to Washington. Ford was the first to announce its intentions, then GM and finally last night, Chrysler said it would join what promises to be one of the most bizarre roadtrips since the Griswolds hit the highway in "National Lampoon's Vacation."
Wagoner is driving a Chevrolet Malibu hybrid sedan (34 mpg highway, $26,225 MSRP).
Mulally is driving a Ford Escape hybrid SUV (31 mpg, starting at $29,305).
Chrysler would say only that Nardelli is driving a "fuel-efficient hybrid." One possibility: Chrysler makes the Aspen SUV (19 mpg, $33,705).
Levity aside, top corporate executives often are compelled by their boards of directors to take private jets when flying for personal security reasons. Chief executives are valuable to their companies and their injury or death could crush a company's share price.
Further, it's statistically much more dangerous to drive to Washington than to fly.
But Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli know they have to take the risk if they are to have any hope of getting government help.
And if there's any irony to this whole episode -- and there's plenty -- it's that before taking over Ford in 2006, Mulally was a top executive at Boeing, which makes jets.