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A Drive for Excellence

Here in Michigan, the automotive industry has always been an everyday topic of conversation.  In the past, college graduates would gain employment as automotive industry managers and high school graduates would be well compensated by seeking factory jobs.

As a former executive within the automotive supply chain, I have observed the industry since listening to a talk, while in college, by Charles Erwin Wilson (July 18, 1890 – September 26, 1961) who was United States Secretary of Defense from 1953 to 1957 under President Eisenhower and known as "Engine Charlie", when he previously worked as CEO for General Motors (GM).  When asked if as Secretary of Defense he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively.  But added that he could not conceive of such a situation "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."  This statement has been misquoted endlessly in the inverted form of "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."  Engine Charlie's statement has never been more true as we witness the decline of the American automotive industry over the fifty years since his death. 

Since the mid-1970s, GM, Ford and Chrysler started to be led by financially-oriented management rather than "car guys" who worked to "harvest" corporate assets and squeeze out maximum profits as product quality declined.  In the mid-1970s, the GM bean counters combined the styling and design departments to reduce costs.  In the late 1970s, the retired head of GM's Tech Center told me that the financial guys had even decided to place plastic parts in automotive brakes as part of the industry's effort to reduce vehicle weigh while improving fuel economy.  As you may know, brakes can become very hot and therefore is not a place for plastic parts.  Luckily, the car guys were able to overrule the bean counters and prevent plastic brake parts from being installed in vehicles. 

Like Engine Charlie, most auto industry executives had summer homes in northern lower Michigan.  One of those locations was Leland, MI where I vacation during the first two weeks of August.  Leland is built on the site of one of the oldest and largest Ottawa villages on the Leelanau Peninsula.  Around 1900, wealthy individuals from Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and other Midwestern industrial centers began to visit Leland and build summer cottages, arriving by Lake Michigan passenger steamer or by Lake Leelanau steamer from the railhead near Traverse City. This led to the construction of resort hotels, and the growth of Leland as a summer resort.  (Go here for more)