Thirty-two years ago today, I walked in the door at Crain Communications as a newly hired reporter for a startup publication called Crain’s Detroit Business. Today, my 32nd anniversary, is also my last day working for the company that has given me so many opportunities. I am retiring to move on to new adventures.
In parting I’d like to recall some past adventures, thank a few people and offer an observation or two.
My Automotive News career began with a journalistic disaster. Strictly speaking, I became an Automotive News reporter one November day in 1994 when I boarded a creaky Air Ukraine Tupolev Tu-154 jet in Kiev, Ukraine, bound for the industrial city of Zaporizhia in the south of the country, one of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.
I had come to Ukraine on my last assignment for Crain’s Detroit Business, a sibling publication of Automotive News, where I had worked for 10 years. I spent a month in the gorgeous old Habsburg city of Lviv, Ukraine, teaching a class in journalism and communications at the Lviv Institute of Management, a fledgling business school. I wrote a series of stories for Crain’s Detroit about Ukraine’s efforts to move from communism to a market economy.
The flight to Zaporizhia was unnerving. As the plane climbed steeply aloft, the aisle carpeting, which wasn’t tacked down, slid past us toward the back of the airplane.
But I was determined to impress my new editors at Automotive News with my journalistic enterprise. I had arranged the trip to Zaporizhia to tour the factory of AvtoZAZ, a Soviet-era company that made two cars virtually nobody has heard of (justly so): the Tavria and Zaporozhets, a car with the nickname of the “hunchback” for its insect-like form.
Arriving at the factory, I saw dozens of people standing in the cold. My translator explained these were customers, who had come to take delivery of cars they had ordered months or years ago. One small problem: When I entered the plant manager’s office and introduced myself as a representative of the world’s top automotive trade paper, the gentleman politely declined to allow me inside for a tour.
Fortunately Editor Edward Lapham didn’t rescind my job offer after this fiasco. I fared better in Moscow, where I wrote a story about entrepreneur Mark Thimmig and Trinity Motors, the General Motors dealership he was running. Moscow was a wild west, gangster town in those days. We were chauffeured around the city in an armor-plated Chevrolet Caprice driven by an armed former special forces agent. One of the vehicles the dealership offered for sale was a Chevrolet Suburban outfitted by O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co.with inch-thick windows, AK47 gun ports in the doors and a button that would spray black oil on the windshield of any pursuing vehicle.
There have been few boring days since. A few random thoughts and thanks:
Big break No. 1: Not long after I joined Automotive News as marketing reporter, Lapham summoned me into his office to inform me he was adding a beat to my list of responsibilities. Our used-car reporter had resigned and Ed was assigning me to cover auto auctions and used cars. Seeing my crestfallen look, Ed hastened to cheerily reassure me: “Don’t worry, it will only take up 10 percent of your time.” Famous last words. That percentage was quickly turned on its head. Ed had just handed me a golden opportunity. I made my name nationally covering the advent of the CarMax and AutoNation used car superstores and the ensuing retail revolution.
Big break No. 2: One day in 1998, a typewritten notice was posted on the bulletin board at Automotive News. Automotive News Europe Editor Richard Johnson was seeking a reporter to fill a vacancy in London. It was an opportunity I had dreamed of since that first day in 1984 when I noticed Crain Communications had a London office. And so it was that I moved from covering the retail revolution to following Ford of Europe, Jaguar, Bentley, Land Rover, Volvo, Rolls-Royce and MG Rover. From winter testing Volvos on the frozen Gulf of Bothnia north of the Arctic Circle to driving Bentleys on the twisty roads of Tuscany, the job was a dream come true.
Biggest flop: The DaimlerChrysler merger. I took a whirlwind 36-hour trip from London to Frankfurt to New York and back to cover the massively hyped first day, which included a strange interview with a hyper, chain-smoking Juergen Schrempp and oddly subdued Bob Eaton. It was an epic mismatch of corporate and national business cultures.
A gentleman’s gentleman: I still miss former Ford Motor Co. COO, the late Nick Scheele, one of the kindest, smartest, toughest men I ever knew. During a lull in the activities on a media trip to open a new Ford Otosan Kocaeli plant east of Istanbul, Turkey, I leaned up against a railing and got fresh white paint on my suit jacket. Scheele, master of ceremonies on the big day, noticed my predicament. “Brad, you should know better than to touch anything at a car plant when corporate executives and politicians are in town for a visit,” said the then-chairman of Ford of Europe with a broad grin. “It’s highly likely there will be fresh paint around.” I scarcely had time to reply before Scheele told me he was going to find someone to clean the paint off my jacket. And sure enough, within moments, he returned with a man with a can of solvent and a white cloth to wick the paint out with a clean white cloth.
A diesel devotee disillusioned: I returned to Detroit after seven years at Automotive News Europe full of evangelical fervor for passenger car diesels. I preached tirelessly to skeptical friends about the incredible torque, effortless power, miserly fuel economy, quiet operation and virtually odorless exhaust. I still believe in oil burners, but to those friends who bought Volkswagen diesels at my recommendation, I apologize.
Generosity and legends: I got to meet a fair number of larger-than-life legends in the retail business including Red McCombs of Red McCombs Ford in San Antonio and Bert Boeckmanof Galpin Motors in Van Nuys, Calif. Many dealers were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. To name just a few: Bill Wallace of Wallace Auto Group in Stuart, Fla.; Jim Seavitt of Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich.; and Don Lee, president of Lee Auto Mall in Auburn, Maine. They always gave me the straight story, regardless of whether it pleased the factories or not.
Most gut-wrenching story: Chrysler’s termination of 789 dealers during its 2009 bankruptcy. Their stories were heartbreaking. I never felt so helpless as a journalist.
Quotable: The auto industry needs more executives who know the world beyond its cloistered confines. Love him or hate him, FCA Chairman Sergio Marchionne is never boring -- quoting Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Niccolo Machiavelli and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. One of my favorites: talking to dealers about Chrysler’s financial health at the 2010 dealer announcement show in Orlando, Marchionne brought down the house when he said, “When I present figures like these, I am conscious of President Lyndon Johnson's admonition: 'Did you ever think making a speech about economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.’”
What scares me most: The 2008 and 2016 elections demonstrated how dangerous it can be when ill-informed politicians try boiling the intricacies of this uniquely complex industry down to Twitter-size soundbites. In the 2008-09 financial crisis, we came perilously close to losing General Motors and Chrysler to political grandstanding. In the recently concluded election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump railed against regional- and global trade agreements. Critics have a point. Trade agreements haven’t benefitted everyone equally. But the industry is global and badly needs consistent, carefully negotiated trading regimes to thrive. Without those, investments will freeze and momentum will stall.
And so: When I walked in the doors 32 years ago, I was a liberal arts major who saw business reporting as a mere way station en route to a more glamorous life as a music critic or arts writer.
What I have learned is that the auto industry is a mother lode of fascinating tales featuring an endlessly absorbing cast of dramatis personae.
All you have to do is figure out what beautifully sculpted, technologically groundbreaking machine customers are going to covet 3-5 years from now. Then you have to set vast teams of engineers, designers, purchasers, suppliers and marketers working feverishly on your new baby 24/7 and hope the arrow you shoot today hits its intended target in the still evolving future.
How difficult could that possibly be?