Friday, April 25, 2014

Once Upon A Car

The storied history of the American auto industry would fill volumes. One of its bleakest periods was between 2005 and 2009, when Detroit's big three were hammered by a slew of factors that pushed two of them into bankruptcy. Once Upon A Car tells this story.

Author Bill Vlasic covered the auto industry as a journalist for many years, and provides the inside info he gleaned from extensive interviews with those who played a role in shaping the course of events that led to the government bail-outs of these companies. He pulls no punches. Some executives come across as highly competent, while others as bumbling fools. The cast of characters includes a number of former and current auto execs including Sergio Marchionne, Alan Mulally, Rick Wagoner, Bob Nardelli, Bill Ford and many others of whom you have no doubt heard.

I read the book as a potential investor in this industry, and it scared the crap out of me. The fixed cost nature of the industry makes it such that when sales projections are just a little bit off, profit projections are *way* off. Since downturns do occur every now and then, you can expect to look silly at some point.

Of course, the Detroit Three had to contend with more than just fixed costs. Foreign competition, which did not have high legacy and union bills, had huge market advantages as a result. The housing/financial collapse also didn't help, as customer demand fell off a cliff. But what's interesting is that some companies managed through it better than others.

For example, Ford's turnaround began when Alan Mulally took the helm, and the company did okay through the recession. GM comes across as a complete disaster, with a management team who just got beat by the competition over a great number of years, but still thought they should be leading the company. This was particularly sad to see as this was the company that was headed by the great Alfred Sloan, who instilled a sort of management science at the company that was relatively groundbreaking at the time. (This is all discussed in Sloan's book, My Years At GM, which Bill Gates has called "probably the best book to read if you want to read only one book about business".)

If you plan to invest in the auto industry, I can think of no place better to start than Vlasic's recount of the recent histories of these companies.

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