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Book Report: Concentration on hierarchies rather than product can be fatal in corporate world

Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that years ago the motto was as "General Motors Goes, So Goes the Nation." He followed by saying, "I'm very glad that isn't true today."

That's an understatement. I've just finished reading "Sixty to Zero," by Alex Taylor III (Yale University Press, $26). Taylor, a senior editor at Fortune magazine, cut his journalistic teeth covering the auto industry for the Detroit Free Press. He became intimate with many automobile executives, including many at General Motors, the main target of his new book.

Lots of cars these days go from zero to 60 in no time at all. It took General Motors several decades to go from 60 to zero.

Over the years I've heard all manner of stories about GM screw-ups: How the complicated corporate structure gummed up the works and made a mess of potentially viable product.

And I well remember our 1980 Buick Century, which in one year developed huge paint blisters on all four doors.

As for anecdotes, one of my favorites is how the committee structure named a new Chevy and then wondered why it didn't sell in Mexico, even though it was economical and suited to the atmosphere of that benighted country.

The name of the car? Nova. In Spanish that means "No go."

Apparently the committee in charge didn't know that Mexicans normally speak Spanish.

But that's nothing compared to the stuff that Taylor digs up and ladles on in "Sixty to Zero."

Taylor cites underboss John DeLorean's story about a corporate meeting that went on for hours on a minor point. Finally, CEO Dick Gerstenberg stopped the conversation and said, "I've appointed a committee to look into this matter and expect a report in 90 to 120 days." 

There was dead silence when finally a veep who was about to retire said, "That's the same committee that you appointed months ago that came up with the report we've been discussing all day."

There's also, of course, Roger Smith, the CEO that Michael Moore skewers in his documentary, "Roger and Me." Smith attempted to streamline the complicated corporate structure at GM and was so wildly unsuccessful that employees jumped from 681,000 employees to 811,000 in the first two years of his streamlined "reign."

That was 1985, the year Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada produced 3.5 million cars, the same number as Toyota. CPC had 60,000 employees. Toyota? 60,000.

And there's nasty stuff, too. When Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed," an expose of the dangers of the Chevy Corvair, GM execs hired private detectives to tail Nader and hoped to demonstrate that he was a homosexual.

When that failed, Nader sued for invasion of privacy and GM paid him off with $425,000. (I knew there was something I liked about that guy.)

Anyway, it's a sad story about a once-great manufacturing empire that came to naught because it concentrated its energies on hierarchies rather than building cars.


My grandfather and father both loved to read westerns. They read short stories in magazines like True Western. They read novels by Owen Wister and novels by Zane Gray.

They weren't as bad as our bachelor neighbors on the farm, Dad said. 

"These guys read so many westerns and never really got to town and so they talked to each other in the argot of the western." (Like "Knut, ah think ah'll mosey mesself down to the barn and milk the Holsteins.")

So I pooh-pood westerns until I read Wisconsin author Larry Watson's wonderful novel "Montana 1945," about the adventures of a small town sheriff in post World War II America.

Admittedly, it was more artful than Wister and Gray, but it had lots of the energy of the old style version of the genre.

And so here's a new book that follows in the tradition. "The Scent of Rain and Lightning," by Nancy Picard (Ballantine, $25), tells the story of the Linder family in present day Kansas and how the man convicted of murdering the Linders' father was getting out of jail and moving back to town, thanks to the legal ministrations of the murderer's lawyer son.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9554.