Jerry Flint hasn't reached the rarefied status of Ralph Nader or Ross Perot on GM executives' list of Most Hated Figures in company history. But the automotive columnist for Forbes is taking his best shot these days.
He aimed his biggest broadside at GM in a speech last October. Speaking to 150 engineers and technicians at GM's proving ground in Milford, Mich., he accused top GM leadership of ignorance, myopia, negligence - practically everything but treason.
He scored them for a multitude of missteps, such as eliminating Oldsmobile, bungling Saturn, failing to introduce four-door pickups early enough, allowing the 1998 strike and the design of the Pontiac Aztek.
And the flinty Flint expressed little hope that anyone at GM can do anything about the company's problems because the people running the company aren't car guys.
Net fans flames
This was not on the scale of Nader's diatribe against the Corvair or Perot's wall-shaking critique of The General in the late 1980s. But stoked by the kind of buzz that only the Internet can generate, Flint's diatribe has continued to smolder, proliferating in e-mail messages and photocopies circulated among GM employees, dealers, suppliers and outside observers. And Flint, a 69-year-old scribe who has been criticizing GM for much of the last 20 years, is happily manning the bellows.
'The speech has been passed out by other companies and has traveled around the world,' Flint boasts. 'Some people even at fairly high levels within GM told me I was right. The chairman and president didn't, but at lower levels than that, they did.'
Rating the response
Perhaps predictably, reaction to Flint's manifesto has broken down into four camps:
1. Flint cheerleaders, such as Dale Feigley, a Buick and Oldsmobile dealer in Milford, Mich., who says Flint has 'hit the nail pretty much on the head.'
2. The so-what crowd - probably the largest group - including a Milford engineering executive who heard the speech and agreed with much of the criticism. He considered it 'Monday-morning quarterbacking,' though, without 'very much constructive to say.'
3. The more elite that's-Jerry-all-right crowd, who already are familiar with Flint from his 43 years of covering the auto industry for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Ward's Auto World and Forbes. 'He's such a good curmudgeon,' says J Ferron, automotive-consulting leader for the Americas for Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
4. The Flint-has-a-point-but-he-made-more-of-a-spectacle-of-himself-than-of-GM camp, probably the least-populated group. 'The world has slipped past where he was,' says David Cole, director of the Center for Auto Research, a nonprofit think tank in Ann Arbor, Mich. 'It's not like he's someone based here in Detroit anymore who's digging all the time to get at the truth.'
GM's official response nods at Flint, but then head-butts him. 'Sometimes, he's right on target,' says spokesman Brian Akre. 'But he always interprets the facts about GM in the most cynical light. And sometimes, he's flat-out wrong. He likens himself to a canary in a coal mine warning us and other automakers about impending doom, but a few of us look at him more like he's a dodo with a megaphone.
'A lot of it was historical stuff. If he really listened as much as he pontificates, he'd realize that (CEO Rick) Wagoner already is doing much of what (Flint) said we should do: focus on product, be innovative and return to a corporate culture that made this company great years ago.'
Akre says Flint's opportunity to assault GM from a company-sponsored dais is something of a tradition at the proving grounds. At least annually, Milford invites an outsider's perspective; in 1999, Marge Sorge, then editor of Automotive Industries magazine, was the speaker.
Flint says he eagerly accepted the invitation to speak at Milford because, 'I felt that if I was critical standing on the outside, I should have the guts to step inside the walls of the company and say the same thing right there.'
And Flint is well-known as a staunch critic of GM. He has been urging the high-income readers of Forbes against the company for years. Unlike other members of the national automotive press corps whom GM executives don't like, though, the widely read Flint is tolerated and even stroked.
In the last few years, in fact, both Wagoner and Ron Zarrella, now president of GM North America, accepted speech invitations extended to them by Flint on behalf of the International Motor Press Association, a group of journalists and public relations executives in New York City. The GM executives joshed about the company's mostly adversarial relationship with Flint and about what an old coot he is, and then they spoke about how they were turning the company around.
`You are badly led'
But from the moment he teed up his remarks in Milford, Flint made it clear that he wasn't going to be polite.
'I was there when Ed Cole created the Corvair,' he said, 'and there when John DeLorean created the GTO. ... I was there when the Edsel was born, and when Bob McNamara of Vietnam fame created the little Ford Falcon, the first car to really kick Chevy since the 1920s. And better yet, I was there when Lee Iacocca introduced his Mustang. ...
'I drove Ralph Nader into Detroit when he came with his new book Unsafe at Any Speed, and I knew Haagen Smit, who explained smog, and Bill Mitchell, who knew how to make cars look long and low for General Motors. ... I know the difference between cars made of steel and cars made of clay, and more important, I know the difference between men made of steel and men made of clay.'
Flint critiqued GM management, opening that part of his speech with the unequivocal remark: 'You are badly led, with an organization that just doesn't work.'
He chronicled a series of mistakes that he believes have added momentum to GM's market-share plunge. GM's share of the U.S. light-vehicle market dropped from 40.8 percent in 1985 to 28.3 percent in 2000.
GM executives, he said, have been guilty of:
Waffling over Oldsmobile.
Starving Saturn of new products.
Allowing Lexus and Acura and even Lincoln to outflank Cadillac.
Building an all-new pickup truck without four doors when the entire industry had moved to popular four-door cabs.
Bringing out the all-electric EV1, whose abysmal sales performance was 'covered up by the press because it's a green disaster.'
Wasting time on brand marketing instead of making good product decisions.
'Provoking' the 1998 UAW strikes in Flint, Mich., at a cost of $2.5 billion.
Botching new designs, such as the Aztek.
Using Japanese engines.
Flint also accused GM executives of not liking 'people who know something about the American car business,' bemoaning the departures in recent years of former top executives, including J.T. Battenberg III, now CEO of Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., and Mike Losh, recently retired as CFO of GM.
`Call to arms'
He wrapped by urging the assembled executives to mount an insurgency campaign to turn things around. This included writing notes to GM directors, agitating for a committee of outsiders to evaluate the company's problems and report back in 60 days.
'What else can you do?' he asked. 'Go to church and pray. Your company is going down to 25 percent of the market. That's not terrible. You can make money at 25 percent; Ford does. Write slogans on walls, too. Victory or death, Beat Ford, V, Sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants). That's it.'
A Milford executive says, 'For a couple of days afterward, you heard some conversation about the speech. But I didn't hear anyone taking up his call to arms. We didn't think that his suggestion of writing to the top was the solution. We all have spheres of influence where we're already working to do things better.'
Spreading the word
But word of the speech, and the text itself, spread on Internet chat areas such as AutomotiveForum.com and EZBoard.com.
'We've had a lot of people in the industry e-mail it to us asking, `Have you seen this?' ' says Peter DeLorenzo, founder of AutoExtremist.com, an online newsletter published in Birmingham, Mich. 'Some people at the meeting took it upon themselves to transcribe it or create a text and spread it around. The Net certainly caused the speech to have more attention than it otherwise would have.
'You could argue that none of it matters, because GM is going to do what it's going to do. But I have to believe it's embarrassing.'
In the hope that Flint's remarks might strike a responsive and significant chord, people distributed paper copies of the speech. For example, Buick-Olds dealer Feigley gave manuscripts to the GM manager who advises his 20 Group of dealers (a group of dealers that share profit strategies). Feigley also distributed copies to about 20 of his own employees.
'More than anything else, I would love to see GM rise up and blow the dust off the competition,' Feigley wrote to Automotive News. 'It saddens me to think it will probably never happen.'
The speech still has legs five months after Flint delivered it. A top executive of a GM-affiliated ad agency, for example, pulled a copy of the speech out of his briefcase and read it in March on the plane on his way to film a GM TV commercial.
His assessment? 'It's hard for me to imagine that mistakes as big as he documents are made without significant discussion and research at GM,' says the executive, who notes copies of the speech have been circulating around the agency. 'Why is GM buying engines instead of building its own, for example? In the global market, there might be some good reasons to do that.'
Reaction at the top
GM's Akre hopes that Flint already may be noticing some fruits of GM's latest turnaround attempt. 'Lately, we've noticed that he seems to be picking on DaimlerChrysler and Ford a lot more (in his columns), so maybe we're doing something right.'
For his part, Flint agrees there has been 'some reaction already to things within the company,' although not necessarily catalyzed by his speech. 'I do know,' he said, 'that continued disappointment and fall in market share will bring reaction at the highest levels, including the board level, of this company.'
Dale Buss is a free-lance writer based in Rochester Hills, Mich.