Mair knew what was right and wrong with Detroit
John Casesa, a longtime auto industry analyst, is now an investment banker to the industry at Guggenheim Partners in New York.
A few weeks ago, Alex Mair died at the age of 91. When he retired from General Motors in 1986, Al was vice president in charge of GM's technical staffs, which included research, design and engineering -- in other words, the entire product-creation process. While not as well-known as the CEOs, he was more significant to the development of our industry than most of them.
Al Mair was my mentor at GM and a dear, lifelong friend. He really was of that greatest generation of can-do, forward-looking individuals who built extraordinary American enterprises like GM. I was assigned to work for him as a summer intern, and that experience had a profound impact on my long career as a Wall Street auto analyst.
Like those rare few who foresaw the global financial crisis, Mair called the decline of Detroit long before it became front-page news. He wasn't a naysayer but rather an intellectually honest thinker who identified what was right and wrong with the Detroit business model and said so. Indeed, he analyzed and quantified the competitive gap, explained why it came about and how to close it. But he couldn't overcome GM's culture of denial.
Alex Mair knew how to close the competitive gap, the writer says, but couldn't overcome GM's culture of denial.
For example, in the 1980s Al created a secret research lab at GM's proving grounds called the Competitive Assessment Center. Full of scale models, sample parts, data tables and charts, his center amassed an enormous amount of information, which objectively quantified the competitiveness of the world's automakers on everything from product quality to assembly plant efficiency. Visiting the center was shocking because it revealed that GM knew in remarkable detail exactly what was wrong with it and had the answers to cure it in-house.
A little later, in 1985, I worked with Al to explain the implications of our extraordinary intelligence to GM's board of directors. In the endless "pre-reviews" of the presentation that were standard procedure before going to the board, senior GM executives who couldn't deal with the truth resisted our message. Exasperated, GM Vice Chairman Howard Kerhl said we could go forward as long as we never said "Japanese" in the boardroom. We changed "Japanese" to "world class."
Why did Al have such insight? Besides his high IQ, extraordinary curiosity and a glass-is-half-full view of the world, he had learned the business from the bottom up. As a co-op student at General Motors Institute, Al started on an engine assembly line in Flint, Mich. He came of age when the culture of the brilliant Alfred Sloan still pervaded GM. That culture most highly prized engineering, design, manufacturing and selling -- the revenue-generating activities that created value for customers. Al worked in each of those functions and understood how each contributed to the whole.
Al Mair was a kind, wise, honest and brilliant counselor -- my Yoda. His lessons infused the thousands of research reports I wrote for investors over decades and thereby influenced the massive capital flows that were and always will be the lifeblood of this capital-hungry industry.
For all of us in the auto business -- executives, investors, journalists and the next generation of leaders -- the lessons Alex Mair imparted are as relevant today as they were when I was part of the next generation: Look ahead, not back; look outward, not inward; offer solutions, not problems. And, most important, remember why Al and so many of us were attracted to this monumental industry in the first place: to serve customers. Everything else -- growth, profits, prestige -- is earned later.
You can send e-mail to John Casesa at email@example.com