CEO of General Motors Dan Akerson says “I’m Not a Car Guy” – Huh?


“I’m Not a Car Guy” – Huh?

The Wall Street Journal ran a story the weekend before the Detroit Auto Show on the new CEO of General Motors. The headline read “’I’m Not a Car Guy’: On the Road With the New Man at GM’s Wheel.”

It was relatively flattering piece, portraying a hard charging, no-nonsense seasoned executive in Dan Akerson, someone aiming to give the consumer what he or she wants, and looking for game-changing innovation that will lead the way. Sounds good, right?

Here’s my problem. Two problems, actually. Edsel and Aztec. Let us not forget. Because history has shown that, if you listen too hard to what the market experts tell you, that’s what you get.

It’s not that the troops at an organization like GM, or Ford, or Chrysler don’t want to build great cars. Of course they do. It’s that, if you’re not a car guy, you don’t know what a great car is.

I once was friends with a former speechwriter at GM. This was the early ’90s. He had written for Roger Smith. The company I was with had recruited him away and, as soon as he got on board, I took him to lunch and asked him what it was like to work for a car company like the General.

It’s great, right? You can talk cars and performance with all the other gearheads, right? I bet that, come the weekend, you can call down to the motor pool and requisition the latest Corvette for the weekend, and go racing, or auto-crossing, and all’s well, so long as you bring it back in one piece on Monday, right? He looked at me.

So I said you’re a car guy, right? He continued to look at me. Then he spoke. He said, and I quote, “you learn to appreciate the product.” It was right then and there that I knew where GM was heading.

In the article in the Journal, Akerson says “It’s an asset that I’m not a car guy.” He says he’s not tied to GM’s hidebound ways. “See this can?” He picks up a Diet Coke. “It’s a consumer product. GM has to start acting like a consumer-driven, not engineering-driven, company. We sell a consumer product – our can just costs $30,000.”

Huh? Who gets excited about buying a can of Coke? Who lives with a can of Coke for three or four years? Is a can of Coke the second most expensive purchase most people will make in their lives?

I think Graham Parker said it best in his hit song “Passion Is No Ordinary Word.” If you’re not passionate about your product, what makes you think you’ll give the consumer something they’ll want? It won’t come through consumer research. Because the consumer doesn’t know. The consumer doesn’t have a clue about what they’ll want at the end of the development cycle. The consumer doesn’t even know what’s possible.

And neither do you, if you’re not a car guy.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are a lot of car guys in GM, and in all Detroit. I met a dyed in the wool fanatic in Ralph Gilles, president of Dodge, a month or so ago. This is a guy who, when he’s on the road and has an evening free, looks for go-cart tracks to drive on.

Now, that’s someone who could deliver a fine-handling automobile. But will he? I asked him how he’s getting along with the Italians from new parent Fiat. He said, and I quote, “they get it.”

The message? Don’t count Chrysler out.

And Akerson? Dan, here’s a piece of advice; if a product planner suggests adding a camping feature to a new SUV under development, even if it sounds like a great idea, and he has a pile of market research to back it up, just reject it.

*Editor’s Note: This editorial was written by Dick Badler…one of the newest members of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press. When not driving or writing about Porsches, Badler contributes to

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