How to Sell Cars and Handle Politicians

The Detroit CEOs are back on Capitol Hill presenting their turnaround plans in the hope of getting some kind of financial bailout package from Congress.

On their last visit their mealy-mouthed responses in the face of grandstanding politicians got them no assistance and made them no friends among the public. Their generally poor performance, in particular that of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, reminds me of another Detroit CEO who also testified before Congress.

How Americans and our politicians perceive the domestic auto industry and how management perceives consumers and the political process are critical elements in making and selling cars -- or anything for the matter. If you don't accurately perceive the customers' needs, wants, and their own perceptions of you you're not going to sell much of anything. Being politically astute doesn't hurt either.

The other GM CEO who testified before Congress was Charles Wilson, in this case back in 1953 during his confirmation hearings to become President Eisenhower's secretary of defense.

Rick Wagoner's problem is that he's more like the guys on Wall Street than Charles Wilson.

Wagoner has financial and business degrees. While Charles Wilson was indeed a successful businessman, "Engine Charlie" Wilson was an engineer. He started out in 1909 at Westinghouse, where he engineered electrical components for the young auto industry and then developed electronic devices for the U.S. Army during World War I. After the war he moved to Remy, which was acquired by GM along with Charles Kettering's Dayton Electric Company (Delco) to form Delco-Remy. Between the wars he moved up the General Motors engineering and corporate ladder to become president in 1941 and after World War II he succeeded Alfred P. Sloan as CEO. During the war he was the director of the War Production Board and father of the postwar-dedicated defense industry that later helped win the Cold War and now provides our armed forces with the most advanced weapons in the world. Politics being politics, Wilson's patriotism could not be questioned, but there was concern about conflict of interest because he would not divest his $2.5 million in GM stock, about $20 million in 2008 dollars. When asked if he could make a decision in the best interest of the country that would disfavor GM, he replied that he thought he could, but that that kind of a situation was beyond his conception, "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."