Sometime in the prior decade I was part of a bleary-eyed band of journalists arriving in Tokyo during a General Motors press trip.
As we rode a bus into the city, the GM public relations person leading the trip conferred with the advance person who met us. The conversation, as I recall it:
PR person: “How’s Rick?”
Advance person, awe-struck: “Rick’s incredible. He wants to be scheduled from first thing in the morning till late at night. He doesn’t want any downtime.”
That stuck with me, probably because I was nearly comatose with jet lag. It was typical of the work ethic of alpha executives of the old GM, led and exemplified by Rick Wagoner. They were the “high pots” — the high-potential, high-bandwidth elite, painstakingly selected and nurtured. They busted their tails, from 6 a.m. meetings to late-night conference calls.
But they always left me with a question — a variation on the old gibe, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” If they worked so incredibly hard, why wasn’t GM wildly successful?
To me, the answer is that GM was in a box. Hemmed in by the Jobs Bank, health care and pension costs, eight brands to feed, and a cost disadvantage with import brands, it had precious little room to maneuver.
Wagoner’s generation of executives produced tangible progress in areas such as vehicle quality, plant productivity and entry into China. The team chipped away at the box — steadily, rationally, diligently.
But Wagoner and his cohort weren’t Wall Street ruthless. They didn’t blow up the box and cram drastic workout terms down the throats of creditors, investors, the union and retirees.
That would come later.