Not my grandfather’s General Motors

Grandpa Burns would have been saddened but not surprised by General Motors filing for bankruptcy today.

Walter Burns, my maternal grandfather, was a tool-and-die maker who rose to become a plant manager for GM in the post-war era. As GM's fortunes have declined, I sometimes wonder how a middle manager from GM's heyday a half century ago would react to events.

Today, I think I know.

Grandpa was enormously proud to be part of GM in the 1950s, when GM was widely considered America's best corporation. That was clear to me even as a child. And he loved the perks of his job, such as the annual plant managers' golf outing that let him rub elbows with GM brass. His tales of the epic once-a-year struggle to finish a round without actually drawing blood usually set his old tool-room cronies howling.

But I also remember him telling my father in worried tones about GM avoiding going after more market share for fear the federal anti-monopoly guys would break up the company. To Walter, my dad told me when I was older, that was throwing the game.

For a guy who in the Depression had sometimes hitchhiked cross-country with his bag of die-setting tools in search of work, going easy on your rivals was unthinkable. It would lead to no good, he grumbled.

Now, avoiding an anti-monopoly breakup a half century ago did not doom General Motors to Chapter 11 today. As people who lived through both the Depression and the post-war boom days already know in their gut, and as those of us who are younger are learning now, business cycles can be extreme.

Grandpa Burns knew good times and lean times. But good or bad, his advice was constant: Put your head down and get to work.

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