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Auto industry cutbacks hit swanky Greenbrier parley

The SAE Greenbrier meeting, an elite annual October gathering of the American auto industry's top brass in a posh hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., is undergoing a transformation.

Organizers want the 51-year-old, by-invitation event, now renamed the Global Leadership Conference, to become more diverse, serious and accessible, and less of a financial burden on the auto companies that pay for it.

"It's like a symbol of the changes taking place in the industry in general," said Harold Krivan, senior partner at J.D. Power and Associates and program chairman for the gathering. "Nothing stands still."

The biggest changes:

n Japanese and European automakers will be invited.

n The $500,000 cost of underwriting the event will be split among 20 or more sponsoring companies, rather than a single Big 3 automaker.

n In the future the event probably will move to a less expensive venue.

In addition, attendees are being asked privately to spend a little less time on the golf course and more time listening to speakers.

The long weekend at the Greenbrier Hotel has been a who's-who gathering. Auto supplier and Big 3 executives and their spouses mingle over golf, black-tie receptions and courtesy calls to suppliers' suites. There is a program of speakers.

Tradition endangered

But after last year's event, some thought the tradition might not see its 52nd year. Budget and price cuts, stock market declines and the change of U.S. management at the Chrysler group caused many to rethink the rendezvous.

"People were asking people to lower their cost of doing business," Krivan said. "And then they looked at the cost of going to the Greenbrier. They asked, 'Is this really consistent?' "

According to several of last year's attendees, the number of auto executives on hand was lower than expected. Attendance at the formal presentations was weaker than usual. At one point, speaker Richard Parry-Jones, group vice president for product development and quality at Ford Motor Co., which funded last year's event, chided the audience for its lackluster attitude.

Although the event is arranged annually by SAE International's Detroit Section, the Big 3 traditionally have taken turns paying for it. In addition, the automaker would solicit suppliers to help pay for a reception or golfing expenses, something that made some suppliers uncomfortable.

Skepticism at DCX

This year was to have been the Chrysler group's turn. But organizers say the automaker's new German management cast a cold eye on the tradition. Complicating matters: The Chrysler group hit its suppliers for an immediate 5 percent reduction in parts prices late last year and another 10 percent cut by next year.

However, Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche is a featured speaker this year, and the automaker will still shoulder some of the cost, as will Ford and General Motors. But in a symbol of the diversifying U.S. auto industry, also helping to pay for the gathering are at least four German-owned companies: Porsche AG, Continental AG, Robert Bosch Corp. and Siemens Automotive.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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