The Big 3: Why they are failing

I grew up outside of Detroit, and most of my family still lives up in Michigan.  My grandfather enrolled in General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) on the GI Bill after fighting in World War II, and eventually became an executive with GM.  Many of my aunts and uncles still work in or around the auto industry.  Growing up, my family only owned GM vehicles: My first car was a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass which I drove to 200,000 miles.  My second vehicle was a 1971 Firebird, which I still have.

I love GM (even though I'm committed to Toyota now).  And I love Detroit (and all of their pro sports teams – Even the 0-10 Lions.)

So it deeply saddens me to have watched the slow, inexorable slide of the American auto industry as it now approaches complete collapse and its executives beg for bailouts from Washington.  It is a tragedy not only for the formerly-huge companies, but for all of the employees and suppliers and employees of suppliers in Michigan and across the country.

There are probably hundreds of factors in the Big 3's decline.  Here are three which I think are most important:

  • Pension, Insurance, and Retirement: Throughout their history, the automakers increased pension and retirement benefits for their employees to avoid boosting wages.  This allowed the companies to skip the short-term pain of paying more for labor, but the long-term effect was disastrous: Many employees had 20- or 25-year careers with generous 40-year retirements paid by the company.  Multiply this by tens of thousands of retirees, and the financial obligation weighs heavily on each car sold.  GM reports that health care obligations alone cost them over $1600 per vehicle.  Toyota's costs are closer to $200 per vehicle.
  • Wrong Vehicles, Wrong Time: Something happened to the cars Detroit produced around 1973.  The vehicles got bigger, less powerful, and less well-built — all just as the energy crisis started to hit.  For the past 35 years, American automakers have had a horrible sense of how customer needs changed.  Their responses have typically been "too little, too late".  In the 70's they missed the need for fuel-efficient cars.  In the 80's and 90's, they skimped on quality as Honda and Toyota offered the world's most popular models.  In this decade, they poured all of their new-product efforts into the highly-profitable SUV and big truck segments.  Then gas hit $3 and $4 a gallon.  Detroit then scrambled to show it planned high-MPG "green" vehicles (like the Chevy Volt) by 2010 to 2012, while Toyota and Honda had well-proven and popular technology in the marketplace.
  • The Soft Economy: As the overall economy has weakened, people are buying fewer cars.  The freeze-up in financing has compounded the automakers' ability to entice customers to buy their vehicles.  As sales across the industry have fallen off, the Big 3 are in the weakest competitive position.

These factors, when combined, account for the implosion of the automakers.  As 1) Detroit has failed to deliver what the market needs, and 2) the overall market shrinks — resulting in a 45% sales drop in just one year for GM — the industry can't afford to pay for the massive obligations represented by its retirees.

So that's my Cliff Notes version of what's wrong with the Big 3.  In my next post, I'll explore whether a bailout of the industry makes sense.

(P.S. If you are interested in an extended discussion on GM's pension obligations, check out Roger Lowenstein's While America Aged, which devotes about a third of the book to how GM got into this situation.)

[where: Detroit, MI]

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