A captivating new contrast in Detroit


DETROIT — Like a scene from Bodega Bay, Calif., in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds, they perched from ledges, squawked in alcoves and peered around pillars.

In the middle of a onetime concrete jungle, employees snapped selfies, buzzed with a palpable energy and waited with anticipation.

And then the leader, dressed in a black leather jacket punctuated with silver zippers, emerged from the shadows and took the small stage, taking out her own phone to snap pictures — at one point flipping into panorama mode to capture multiple floors of employees who were hanging onto every click of her phone, while ready to hang on every word.

This is the General Motors you don’t see in middle America or the Middle East.

Wait. This was General Motors?

“So,” CEO Mary Barra told cheering employees at GM’s renovated downtown world headquarters here last week, “we have had a pretty good week.”

Around Barra stood members of her senior leadership, media, friends and that throng of employees as she also introduced GM’s autonomous electric test vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals.

“We are well on our way on our journey to 2019 … to say the vehicle will be safe,” she said. “I think we are starting to win. And it feels good.” Four floors up, less than 24 hours earlier, her crosstown rival offered his own pathway to the future. In a packed Marriott ballroom, in front of an audience of nearly 1,000 that included suppliers, employees and dealers, Ford CEO Jim Hackett — dressed in a tan Ralph Lauren sweater, blazer and dark pants — offered a different set of guideposts and mile markers.

He admitted to thinking in the abstract, about designing a process for advantage and dealing with “judo throws.”

In business, “I can see other systems that are equally complex, different that move faster” than automotive, Hackett said, quoting from the book Scale, by Geoffrey West. “In nature … [West] has this theory that what happens in fitness, particularly in nature, the competition speeds up. … These cycles of competition go faster. He was studying birds and the bees and economic systems.”

The Birds — and the birds and bees. What a difference in approach in Detroit.

In his first Detroit auto show Q&A, Hackett made references to author Walter Isaacson, Moore’s law, machine learning, deep learning and “fast fitness.”

And, at that point, he was just getting warmed up.

“In the autonomous Rubicon,” he said, “if you wonder how it will evolve, just look backwards to the way computing evolved.”

Got that?

“We have had a pretty good week,” CEO Mary Barra told a crowd at GM’s headquarters.

Deep differences?

In a 24-hour period, it was a fascinating comparison of styles.

One is 62 and a first-time auto exec. The other 56 and a career GM employee.

Both companies made billions in 2017 and expect a strong surge by 2019. And GM and Ford are confident that the decisions they are making now will bear fruit quickly.

But the chasm is wider than that. The differences seem, initially, deep — not only in the personalities, but in the entire approaches.

Who is ahead? Who is right? Who will effect more change? That’s for the market to decide.

For now, anyway, the differences are as subtle as the turn of an engine on a Chevy Silverado and a Mustang Bullitt.

Hackett envisions a Ford built around a vision of “smart vehicles for a smart world,” as he told our crowd at the Automotive News World Congress. He talks of the systematic and academic — at times, stretching the imagination and bending the abstract to illustrate a point. Details? He’s had a few.

“I have to compete with Apple in a warehouse, and you can’t tell me what they’re working on,” he told us. “Not to dismiss GM or Daimler … but they are not defining that fitness.”

Barra’s view is as concrete as the walls her team has transformed in the newly renovated Renaissance Center.

“We are on a mission,” she told employees. “To get to a world where we have zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

Glaring differences

Through the years, for obvious reasons, the pathways of Ford and GM have always been intertwined. Their leaders have always been compared. Today, the differences are glaring. This is not Jacques Nasser and Rick Wagoner, but it is Silverados and physics.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the Chevrolet Silverado launch,” Barra told employees. “This is an example of putting the customer at the center of everything we do — the start of our truck story. Silverado, GMC Sierra, heavy-duty, full-size SUVs. And we have more to tell on Silverado.”

Hackett admits he is still trying to work on rallying the company to “follow me.”

“The clarity of what this future is, is undeniable to me,” he said. “I’m humble about that, but I think I have a pretty good handle on what that is.”

Barra has taken an equally humble and quiet approach, leading GM to a stock surge and a wave of announcements that have positioned the company as a leader into the future.

“GM is in the lead in getting autonomous vehicles onto the road,” she said. “Our transformative perspective is extremely important work going on in EV and AV.”

Hackett is now in a position where he needs to define exactly where Ford is going — with specifics, objectives and goals that Wall Street can digest and comprehend.

He’s had the time to formulate the plan, and suppliers and dealers want to know what tangible aspect they can hang onto that defines the next Ford.

His approach is professorial with a trajectory that, initially, appears to be patterned more after a guy named Jobs than Quality is Job 1.

“What if I said you have to travel the speed of light to be fast? Well, you can’t,” he said. “So how would you beat it? You need to aim ahead, where it’s going to be. Ford is aiming ahead of where it has to be, because it has to be ahead in order for people to believe our strategy isn’t about catching up to someone else’s old view.”

And, for a moment last week, two contemporary Detroit worlds collided.

And this is the important part of the new Detroit story — one that we will confidently look back on at some point and poignantly recall as the pivot in the conversation of leadership, direction and vision.

Physics. Trucks. Moore’s law. Journeys. Birds. And bees.

“We’re scratching the surface on what this company can accomplish,” Barra said.

And Hackett?

“Ethos is the character of a company. It was defined by not taking money in a bailout and defining now the areas where smart beats smart and we win. And how much ahead we can get.”

Get ready for the ride.

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