Analysts say U.S. car sales were at least 15% better in January than the same month last year.  Part of the reason is the deals.

Credit is more available than it was last year, and many car makers are offering low to 0% financing on last year’s models, as they try to clear room for the new models on the way. 

George Augustaitis is an analyst with IHS Automotive.  He says those new cars could keep the momentum going as the year progresses.

Ford is introducing the new Focus, Hyundai will launch the new Elantra , and Honda has a new Civic on the way.

"This is really going to drive buyers back," says Augustaitis.  "And a lot of these vehicles already have a large following."

Ann Arbor-based Borders Books announced Sunday that it would be delaying January payments to its landlords, vendors and others. Borders also delayed payments in December.  

Borders says the move is intended to ‘protect liquidity’. Borders has been losing money for years, as book buyers have increasingly turned to the internet.

Michael Norris is the senior trade book analyst with Simba Information. He says there is one problem Borders executives must find a solution for. 

They need to answer the question 'Why should I shop at Borders? They should tattoo that question backward on their forehead so they can see every time they look into the mirror every morning.

Borders lined up a half billion dollars in financing last week to help the book seller stay afloat. But the company may still be headed toward bankruptcy protection

Entrepreneurs will get a unique opportunity to get their business idea off the ground in Grand Rapids. During “5x5” 5 people will have 5 minutes to present their ideas on anything from art to education to business. 5 judges will decide which of the ideas should be awarded up to $5,000.

Ann Arbor-based Borders Books may be able to stave off bankruptcy, thanks to a new financing deal announced this week .     Professional writers are waiting to see what the company’s next chapter will bring. 

Courtesy Creative Commons

Borders Books has been struggling to survive. 

Yesterday, the Ann Arbor bookseller announced it had lined up $550 million dollars in financing to stay afloat.

The deal is contingent on Borders reaching a deal with book publishers. It's been reported that the company set a February 1st deadline for the publishers to agree to take up to a third of the booksellers debt. A Borders spokeswoman would only say the company has not stated a specific date. 

The deal with GE Capital announced Thursday could help. Or it may not. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Borders is still looking for money to finance the company through a possible bankruptcy filing.

Tooshed4 / Flickr

Ford Motor Company announced this morning that it had its best annual performance in more than a decade. Ford earned $6.6 billion last year as sales jumped by 20 percent. Revenues rose 3 percent to almost $121 billion.

UPDATED:  11:40 a.m.  Ford CEO Alan Mulally says salaried and hourly workers will share in the good news in the form of profit-sharing checks.  Hourly workers will get average payments of $5,000.

"To be able to share the wonderful work, the wonderful success of this, with everybody's that's worked on quality, on fuel efficiency, on safety -- it's a tremendous day for all of us," says Mulally.

Ford made $7.2 billion dollars in 1999, but it sold nearly twice the number of vehicles to get that result compared to 2010.  Mulally says the company is benefiting from what he calls a "home improvement loan" of $23-billion, taken out in 2006, that financed the company's effort to slash operating costs and improve quality.

"You think about back then (1999) and now, this is a complete transformation of Ford," he says.

Mulally says the biggest challenge this year is not specifically a Ford problem.  He says the U.S. needs to exercise sound fiscal policy so the economy continues to recover.

Ford Motor Company is forecasting higher profits in 2011 than 2010. 

The company's stock dropped Friday morning, however, as investors reacted to Ford's fourth quarter results.  The company's profits were lower than expected because of costs associated with restructuring some debt.

Mulally says the company has made swift progress in paying off that "home improvement loan."  Debt was reduced 43% in 2010.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Public transportation around Grand Rapids could get a huge boost if voters in the city and 5 suburbs approve a mileage increase set to appear on the ballot in May. If the levy passes, The Rapid CEO Peter Varga says it would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $76 a year.

A Michigan Congressman says U.S. automakers need more help to sell large numbers of electric and hybrid vehicles.

The Obama administration has set a goal of one million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015.

There’s already a federal tax credit of $7,500 to help defray the cost of buying a hybrid or electric car.   But there’s a cap on how many of the credits are available to each automaker. 

General Motors is saying thanks but no thanks to more federal loans.  The Detroit automaker is withdrawing its application for more than 14-billion dollars in low-cost loans from the Department of Energy.   

Many car companies including Ford have received DOE loans, which are intended to help auto companies revamp factories to build more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.  GM applied for loans through the program shortly after emerging from bankruptcy.  But the automaker says its financial situation has improved since then. 

Gerry Meyers is a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He's also a former Chairman of American Motors Corporation.  He says taking the loans would have given GM more debt.   And the automaker told prospective IPO investors late last year that it would avoid going deeply into debt.

It’s quite clear that they’re trying to clean up that balance sheet and also get the government out of the business, so it’s just another step in that direction and I think it’s wise.

Meyers says the next step to GM’s recovery is to stop the revolving door at the top executive level.  The company has had four CEOs in two years.   

user santoshkrishnan / wikimedia commons

The new GM has been turning a corner of late. It posted three profitable quarters last year:

  • $865 million in the first quarter
  • $1.6 billion in the second quarter
  • $2.1 billion in the third quarter

(still waiting on fourth quarter numbers)

Now, in another sign of financial health, the auto company says it will no longer seek government loans to help it modernize factories:

From the Associated Press:

No Michigan housing markets rank among the 25 worst for home foreclosures in a new national survey.    But, that may change by the end of this year.  

Wally G / Flickr

The head of the government's bailout program says the U.S. Treasury Department hopes to sell its remaining shares of General Motors stock over the next two years.

The Associated Press reports:

Timothy Massad, the senior Treasury official managing the government bailout fund, told a congressional hearing that there is now a path forward for Treasury to sell its remaining shares in GM over the next two years if market conditions permit. The Treasury Department trimmed its stake in GM to 26.5 percent of the company, down from 61 percent, when it sold $23.1 billion of GM stock at an initial public offering in November.


U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with Ford CEO Alan Mulally on Tuesday to discuss the "epidemic" of distracted driving, as LaHood calls it.

LaHood’s self-described rampage against distracted driving has mostly focused on cell phone use in cars.  But the Secretary has also angered many people in the car business for criticizing profit-driving car technologies like Onstar and Sync. 

Many studies show that using a cell phone in the car is distracting.  And so are a lot of other things, especially if they pile up.  Let’s say you’re driving and there’s a kid in the back seat crying.  That’s distracting.  If you remember the Ed Sullivan show, you can think of that as one plate spinning on top of a pole.

John Eisenschenk / creative commons

One of the biggest office buildings in Grand Rapids sold for $34 million at a public foreclosure auction today. The 17-story blue-glass Bridgewater Place building dramatically changed the city’s skyline when it was built in the early 1990s.

Many people refer to the building as the Varnum building, because of the law firms’ prominent logo near the top floor.

Construction is underway on a huge plant in Holland that will eventually produce hundreds of thousands of battery packs for electric vehicles, including the Chevy Volt. Under a new agreement signed this week, Grand Rapids Community College will help train potential employees for the company, LG Chem.

Mary Hofstra is with GRCC. She helped design this and similar programs at the college.

 “Our goal as a school is to be working with these new battery facilities and to design the curriculum needed to support that industry. So that people can come here, get their college certificate, one year certificate. Maybe it’s going to be a job training model where someone comes for a 20 week period of time to learn the basics to get into that field. It’s going to bring a lot of opportunity beyond just the few that are coming to area.”

Under the agreement, the college will train more than 3,000 employees the company expects to hire over the next two decades. LG Chem will pay for their employees’ training through payroll taxes.

warrenski / Creative Commons

Right now, the county rotates growing corn, soybeans and alfalfa on a giant, 11,000 acre plot of land where their waste water treatment plant is. They hope to lease out the land in order to add wind farming to the mix.

Mark Eisenbarth directs Muskegon County’s Wastewater Management System. He says they hope to build up to 75 commercial-sized wind turbines on the site. Eisenbarth says there are dozens of municipalities in Michigan with small turbines or even a handful of large ones. But he says this project will be unique.

“To actually get into a wind project where you’re actually creating 75 to 100 megawatts, we are not aware of any municipality, I’m not saying there’s not any, but I have not seen any yet.”

Muskegon County is soliciting proposals to create a wind farm that would generate between 75 and 100 megawatts. They expect to begin reviewing those proposals by May.

Allan Chatto / Flickr

Sylvia Rector, a Detroit Free Press Restaurant Critic, has a nice little piece in the Freep about a shortage of pizza pans around the state.

The pizza pan of choice for local restaurants is a blue steel pan that was once made in West Virginia.

The pans were never intended for baking. They were designed to hold small parts in factories.

Overtime the pans "became the pan of choice for nearly every big name in Detroit-style pizza" (Rector describes Detroit -style pizza like this "dough for the thick but airy crust, absurd amounts of cheese and ladles of rich, long-simmered sauce").

But the company moved its operation to Mexico, and they haven't been able to get production up and running.

Pizza makers were distraught. They needed the pans. From the article:

Restaurant supply companies here -- and apparently everywhere else -- have been out of them for many months.

Pizza makers' orders for pans are stacking up by the thousands and causing problems for big chains and small independents alike.

"You wouldn't even believe how many pans we have on back order" -- at least 4,000 small and medium sizes and 700 extra larges -- says Patti Domasicwicz at People's Restaurant Equipment in Detroit. She hasn't received a shipment since April.

One pizza maker couldn't wait. So he took it upon himself to start making the pans in Michigan.

Eugene Jett, co-founder of Jet's Pizza, says he found a manufacturer that would do it:

"They're cutting them as we speak...The first thing is for me to get my pans...It took me a long time to figure out how to get them done...But I decided then, I will build my own pans."

Rector writes that if the manufacturer thinks the pans will be profitable, they might put the pans into full production.

Perhaps another sign that Michigan is diversifying it's economy.

user stevendepolo / Flickr

After Newsweek named Grand Rapids as one of its ten "Dying Cities," Mayor George Heartwell sat down to express his feelings about the magazine's designation.

In a letter to Newsweek editor Tina Brown, Heartwell said "the citizens of Grand Rapids were astounded when you declared our be a 'dying city.'"

From the letter:

Dying city? Surely Newsweek must be joking! Would a major medical School (Michigan State University School of Human Medicine) move its campus to a dying city? Would a dying city have seen $1.4 Billion in downtown construction in the past seven years?...Would a dying city have more LEED certified buildings per capita (2009) than any other American city?

The mayor might have been wise to ask whether rapper 50-cent would consider moving to a dying city as well.

He did invite Newsweek's Tina Brown to visit the city saying, "I'm afraid our timing is off to get you to a Kid Rock concert...that happens tonight. But if you want to see Lady GaGa at our Van Andel Arena there's still time; she's comes this spring."

user dvs / Flickr

For much of the last decade, cities across our region have watched their recent college graduates flee to cities like Phoenix.

It what might be good news for our region, new census data show the recession has significantly changed where young people are moving.

People, especially people in their early twenties, go where the jobs are.

That’s why Michigan is so concerned about being the only state in the census to lose population

And cities like Cleveland and Detroit have been fretting about "brain drain" to other areas.

Chicago Auto Show organizers like Detroit's trend

Jan 25, 2011
Chicago Auto Show

For the second year in a row, attendance at the North American International Auto Show increased.

It's not just good news for Detroit. It could also be good news for Chicago.

The 2011 Chicago Auto Show kicks off in two weeks.

Its organizers say they’re encouraged by the figures out of Detroit where 735,000 people attended this year’s show.

That’s about 20,000 more than last year.

It's not a huge increase, but it is a change from years of steady decline.
Paul Brian works with the Chicago Auto Show, which attracts a lot more people than the Detroit Auto Show. Brian says regional rivalries aside

"It's kind of like whether you’re Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines - everybody’s playing on the same team. If it’s good for the Detroit show, it’s good for Chicago, and New York, and LA, and it’s good for the industry."

After all, buzz is buzz.