It increasingly appears the key problem with America’s automakers was management. Foreign marquees such as Toyota and Honda have proven that producing cars in the United States is not only profitable, but cost-efficient. So why haven’t U.S. automakers done the same?

Fault lies at the top. While a confluence of factors caused Chrysler and General Motors to wobble, the inability of management to make a course correction caused their fall. Industry may be built on work force, but it thrives from vision.

This is particularly true of the automotive industry, which is rife with royalty: Henry Ford, Bob Lutz (GM) and Lee Iacocca come to mind. They ran their shops with foresight and fortitude. (Iacocca’s latest book is bullishly titled, “Where have all the leaders gone?”)

So if we accept that the automotive industry grew as monarchies, restoring the vigor of its leadership should become the top concern – more than anything else, Chrysler and GM, now subsidiaries of the U.S. government, must come under new management.

How this is done, however, is a concern. The coalition leadership of Chrysler is a unique mixture of styles, philosophies and cultures: the giant Italian automaker, Fiat, the United Auto Workers, the United States government and also the government of Canada.

In striking this deal, President Obama criticized private investment firms who balked at joining this venture, saying they hoped to benefit from others’ sacrifices without making their own, according to The New York Times. “I do not stand with them,” he said.

(It should be noted, though, that Fiat is not investing in Chrysler, but coming aboard to provide “technical assistance,” the Times reported. How this constitutes a sacrifice by Fiat is unclear.)

What is clear is the U.S., Canada, the UAW and Fiat believe they can manage Chrysler without private partners. They can – the U.S. government has already given Chrysler $4 billion, with promises of more in bankruptcy – but who will manage it?

Chrysler has been a struggling global company once, with its ballyhooed but unsuccessful purchase by Daimler-Benz. Now it is a global holding, shared by two national governments, one powerful labor union, and one massive foreign manufacturer. (Who, many will remember, flamed out of the American market once before.)

This divergent group has shared goals: a viable Chrysler, to preserve the thousands of jobs it directly and indirectly supports, and return billions invested by taxpayers to keep it afloat. Yet laudable shared ends don’t always mean unanimity on means when four entities in three nations over two continents are involved.

America’s automotive industry was forged by its products and its personalities. It was made by leaders such as Ford, who famously said, “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black,” and, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

The Motor City wasn’t built by committee. Now a committee is poised to save it. We hope they are up to the task.


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