Julie Hamp's not-so-excellent adventure
The American communications executive was one of three non-Japanese named to top posts at Toyota Motor Corp. early this year as part of an effort by CEO Akio Toyoda to diversify an insular leadership team. Then Hamp was mailed a package from the U.S. containing oxycodone, the import of which is strictly controlled in Japan. For 57 pills, she was arrested and thrown in jail. For three weeks. Toyota offered tepid support. Toyoda called her "invaluable" and a "trustworthy friend" but didn't demand her release.
While sitting in the clink, she resigned. In this comedy of errors, Hamp's was actually quite innocuous, worthy of maybe a fine and a slap on the wrist in any other industrialized nation. The actions of Japan's authorities were egregious. So much for diversity.
Piech's last stand
The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the inventor of the "people's car," Ferdinand Piech had dominated Volkswagen for 22 years, first as CEO and then chairman of its supervisory board, pulling strings and orchestrating the ouster of those who fell short of his exacting standards. In April, he tried one more intrigue, against then-CEO Martin Winterkorn. Unhappy with VW fortunes in the U.S., Piech slyly told a German magazine that he was keeping a "distance" from his former protégé.
News that the chairman suddenly had doubts about the CEO set off a board-level crisis, but this time Piech went too far. With VW nosing ahead of Toyota as the world's largest automaker and profits billowing, the board sided with Winterkorn. Vanquished, Piech resigned, as did his wife, Ursula, also a board member. When the diesel scandal erupted, Piech gained a measure of revenge as Winterkorn resigned and was replaced by a Piech favorite, Matthias Mueller. Oh, but what a price: In the wake of the diesel mess, VW's shares have plummeted, cutting the value of the Piech-Porsche family's holdings at one point by as much as $11 billion.
The Takata train wreck
The maker of airbag inflators continued its blundering ways in 2015. It's in hot water for making inflators that can explode too forcefully and spray vehicle occupants with shards of metal and plastic. That's bad enough, but then it was revealed that Takata had provided its largest customer, Honda, with incorrect data related to its inflators. Takata agreed to pay $70 million cash as part of a consent order with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for Takata's violations of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act but could end up paying a whole lot more if it violates the terms of the order or U.S. auto safety laws.
The opening of UAW and FCA contract talks in July was highlighted by an emphatic man-hug between union boss Dennis Williams and FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne and rankled the rank and file, used to seeing their leaders confronting, pushing, challenging management, not some buddy-buddy bromance. Then the union leaders and the company announced a deal in September, after no strike, no walkout.
It included the first raise in 10 years for veteran, Tier 1 workers and a path for lower-tier worker pay to climb to as much as $25 an hour over the four-year term of the contract. But the membership spiked it -- decidedly. Williams and Marchionne were forced back to the bargaining table to hammer out a more generous deal for workers.