Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers – GM, Ford, and Chrysler

By Bill Vlasic
William Morrow, 2011

If you like your management lessons in narrative form rather than paradigmatic frameworks, you’ll love Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers – GM, Ford, and Chrysler. In it Bill Vlasic, the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, does a masterful job of weaving together the recent travails of America’s battered car companies. Using extensive interviews with the major players, he serves up a fly-on-the-wall recounting of what happened in the corridors of power, while at the same time affording the reader an appreciation of the profound systemic problems that plagued these companies.

Vlasic begins the tale in early 2005 at the Detroit Auto Show with the different agendas of the Big Three CEOs. Ford has lost its way; Bill Ford needs help to turn his company around and he knows it.  Rick Wagoner is trying to persuade the financial community that GM is a winner even as its inventories are swelling, earnings are shrinking, and vulture capitalists are starting to circle. Chrysler is surviving but not thriving, and its Daimler-appointed CEO, Dieter Zetsche, finds his faith in the company’s future beginning to waver.

Over the next 32 chapters Vlasic skillfully braids their stories together, with each of the companies providing dramatic contrasts to each other. Ford is wandering in the wilderness, but actively searching for a leader to guide it out. He appears in the shape of the charismatic, straight-talking Alan Mulally, formerly a senior executive at Boeing. Chrysler is the subject of a final heroic turnaround attempt by Zetsche, before he goes on to succeed the ousted Jürgen Schrempp, architect of its failed merger with Daimler Benz, and sells the company. GM brings up the rear, still fundamentally in denial and ultimately trusting that muscle and scale will see it through as they have in the past.

The hero in the book is Alan Mulally, who prospers from Bill Ford’s prescience in mortgaging the company’s assets, which provides the liquidity Mulally needs to avoid bankruptcy in the coming financial meltdown. As CEO, Mulally unites fractious Ford executives (“One Ford…One Team…One Plan…One Goal”) and demands that the truth be spoken and mistakes acknowledged.

Rick Wagoner and his team at GM and a succession of bosses at Chrysler, on the other hand, seem helpless as their companies head inexorably toward the value destruction of Chapter 11, and taxpayer-bankrolled renewal.  The situations in which these companies find themselves are tangled, vexed, and populated by powerful players with sharply differing goals who are willing to make concessions only in extremis. Indeed one wonders whether by 2005 anyone could have saved either firm without going through the purging fire of bankruptcy. The costs associated reducing dealer networks, for example, could not be contemplated outside of Chapter 11.

Vlasic is a master storyteller, whose prowess makes the absorption of many complex facts and organizational arrangements painless. The conversations among the senior players are compellingly rendered and resonate with every manager’s experience. Even though the narrative style usually revolves around the characters, it is striking how personal major business decisions are and how, as neuroscience research confirms, emotion often reigns supreme in the final choices.


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