General Motors Wins a Star

Feb 25, 2011

Two years ago, when President Obama decided to spend billions to prop up General Motors, and then to guide it  through a cushioned, “soft landing” bankruptcy, there were a lot of doubters. Many thought nature should have been allowed to take its course, and that the once-mighty General should have been allowed to die.

At the time, a commentator on NBC News said “As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency.”

But you won’t find Republicans saying that today. General Motors has come roaring back in a way that’s astonished virtually everyone in the industry, not to mention those who talk for a living.

Yesterday, we learned for the first time since 2004, GM ended last year with a profit -- four point seven billion dollars. That was also its biggest profit since the go-go year of 1999.

What‘s more, there are cautious expectations that GM will do even better this year, as the nationwide automotive market continues to recover. One strike against the General is that it still doesn‘t have a lot of exciting new product, as they call new cars in the auto business. They do have two new small vehicles which are adequate if not exciting, the Buick Verano and Chevrolet Sonic.

And the much-ballyhooed, plug-in, mostly electric Chevy Volt is only now emerging from the shadows and getting into showrooms across the nation. Spokesmen for the automaker say there are other exciting new products, choices and technologies in the pipeline, and that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

All this is good news. Had General Motors been allowed to go out of existence, the ripple effect could have resulted in a loss of a million or more jobs nationwide. Yesterday, GM was even able to announce that the company had resumed giving grants to the arts, through not on the same scale as in the pre-bankruptcy days.

Yet there’s a ghost nagging in my ear.

The ghost of auto writer Jerry Flint, who covered this company for more than half a century. Flint died last year, but when GM was on the rocks a few years ago he told me something I’ll never forget.

The worst thing that could happen to GM, he said, would be for the struggling automaker to have a sudden unexpected success as it struggled to remake itself. That, he told me, could bring back all the old arrogance that got GM into so much trouble.

I think that’s not as likely to happen now, certainly not for a while. CEO Dan Akerson is a telecommunications guy by training, not a product of the insular and incestuous GM culture.

Yesterday, he spoke as if he was pleased with his company’s new concentration on small cars, vehicles traditionally disdained by auto executives who were hot to reap the big profits that came from selling giant gas guzzling SUVs.  I think Akerson knows that one profitable year does not an industry turnaround make.

And we should know that however nice it is to have the General back in the black, it will never again employ hundreds of thousands of us at high wages, nor will it lead us to a new, bright future. That will be up to a lot of captains and lieutenants. Up to, that is, all of us.