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The Greenbrier will still be fun, but this time, you'll work, too

COMMENT
Edward Lapham is editor of Automotive News

It will be interesting to see how well attendees like the Global Leadership Conference, which is the reconstituted SAE Greenbrier conference sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers' Detroit Section.

Some things will be different this year because it was time for a change.

For half a century, top execs from the Big 3 and their suppliers have met in fall at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., for a weekend of golf and relaxation. There has been a program with speakers and discussions and things to learn, but the relaxed atmosphere, which includes spouses, is as much about building personal relationships as anything else. It's a chance to get to know better those with whom you do business. That's a good thing.

But in the past few years the Greenbrier weekend had become almost a caricature of itself; each year the Big 3 automaker whose turn it was to underwrite the event and organize the program would try to outdo the others. To many executives, particularly younger ones honed in an age of leaner business practices, it seemed like a vestige from the days when the Old Boys network was everything. And anyone from outside Detroit need not apply.

Time for a change

It all came to a head last year, when Ford Motor Co. was sponsor. Group Vice President Richard Parry-Jones did the group and the event a favor when he stood on a chair and chastised those who had played hooky, ignoring the meetings in favor of golf and other leisure activities. His comments made it painfully clear that it was time for change.

This year, the economic downturn reinforced the point. So instead of just one of the Big 3 ponying up close to $500,000 to underwrite the event, a broader group of companies, including suppliers, will contribute varying amounts up to $50,000.

In the past, attendance was bolstered by dozens of executives from the sponsoring company, with nonsponsors sending only a skeleton crew. It was motivated by politics. The sponsor didn't want to be embarrassed by a light body count, and nonsponsors didn't want to make the other guy look too good.

Not this year. Registration for the Oct. 11-14 event already is much broader and more diverse, and for the first time the group has opened its arms and invited executives from the new American manufacturers as well as importers that don't even build in North America.

The schedule also has been rejiggered to permit attendance at both the formal programs and the other events.

More important than ever

As a result, there is a more eclectic mix of executives on the program, including Dieter Zetsche, CEO of the Chrysler group; Kathleen Ligocki, Ford vice president for Canada, Mexico and North America strategy; and Daniel Hancock, CEO of Fiat-GM Powertrain. That would have been impossible under the old format.

But some things will be the same: the luxury locale, black-tie ball, golf, dinner parties and other opportunities to mingle and socialize.

Is that as important in this era of hard-headed business decisions, mandated cost-cutting and longer-than-ever work days?

More so than ever, says Joseph Borruso, CEO of Hella North America. Borruso, who has attended the Greenbrier meeting for many years, was one of the prime supporters who prompted SAE to re-engineer the event. And Hella is one of the sponsors.

Why? Borruso says the current tough times demand that customers and suppliers get to know each other. He also says that everyone is working so hard these days that there is no time to do it during the workweek.

He's probably right. That's why the re-engineered Global Leadership Conference deserves a chance.

You can e-mail Edward Lapham at

You can reach Edward Lapham at elapham@crain.com

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