Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Auto brilliance can tarnish in a flash

Toyota's recall and production stoppage over stuck accelerators has backed the venerable automaker into a corner of product quality and customer satisfaction issues. As horrible as it is, the immediate crisis will pass.

The incident has brought fond memories of a business cycle game played here in the Motor City that I will call Genius, Idiot and Dunce.

The players in this game are the local auto companies that used to be known as The Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. In the 2010 version of this game, Ford is the Genius, GM is the Idiot, and Chrysler is the Dunce.

Ford, it seems, cannot do any wrong. It didn't accept any government bailout money. Its CEO, Alan Mulally, is a bona fide rock star among industry pundits. Products are hitting the mark with consumers.

GM has gone bankrupt. It has accepted federal money to salve a generation of management and economic missteps. But it has a solid product portfolio with more to come in the pipeline, a better labor agreement and a positive future vision.

Chrysler is GM on steroids, except for product. It is now controlled by Italian automaker Fiat that is probably more interested it Chrysler's distribution network in the U.S. rather than company resuscitation.

But history reveals a change of roles is always ahead. Chrysler was the Genius of the 1990s. GM carried the mail in the late 1970s and 1980s while Ford toiled in GM's shadow and Chrysler successfully shook off the shame of an earlier federal bailout.

The lesson: Like the weather around here, wait for the business cycle to change in an instant. Don't ever count anyone down and out in a fickle, dynamic and rapidly changing auto industry.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hockey player sticks to tradition

Finding a Sher-Wood 5030SC Feather Light wood hockey stick here in the middle of Hockeytown has been as challenging as watching the Detroit Lions -- painful and aggravating.

I admit it. I'm old school when it comes to hockey equipment, especially my stick. Wood has a special, tactile feel that's as comfortable as a pair of well-worn bedroom slippers. For me, composite models offer a snappier shot but make taking a pass an adventure like a football fumble.

Local sport shops, however, have learned that selling a $150 composite stick is much more profitable than selling five $30 ones. Incredibly, kids are willing to fork over their allowance cash for a composite endorsed by Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby. (Goals, no doubt, optional at extra cost). The wood stick has become as uncommon as Conan O'Brien at NBC headquarters.

After burning petrol all over town, I finally found a Sher-Wood source. Of course, it was on- line. Of course, I'll have to wait. But I am amazed that, in Michigan, I have to import these Canadian-made hockey sticks from California.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Big brother joins the family

I always thought my family knew me the best. But, in reality, it's really

My family has no idea how many contemporary jazz CDs, Napa Valley wine books, single-cup coffee makers and non-fiction business tomes I've bought and enjoyed over the last seven years. And they have no idea about the musicians, titles, and brands selected, and prices paid for each and every item. But the plucky Internet seller certainly does.

The Amazon folks keep shooting me a regular stream of emails to tell me that, because I ordered this-or-that, I might be interested in purchasing a similar this-or-that. To satisfy my own curiosity, I can even punch up my complete order history...a nostalgic stroll down the memory lane of Internet commerce.

I can't even remember what I bought for my brother's birthday or for my sister's Christmas present -- for 2009. The warmth of family and friends falls into the fog of commercial dementia. But my electronic department store is always open and ready with too much information. Maybe I'll invite them over for a byte to eat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New year, new cars, new seller

As painful as it sometimes seems, the marketplace still is the great equalizer for providing quality goods and services at competitive prices.

I frequently drive past a new-car dealership that sold Pontiacs for decades. The shiny Grand Prixs, Grand Ams, and Bonnevilles wrapped around the building for blocks. Customers scurried around the desks in the sales area, listening to product pitches. I had an old Pontiac Phoenix repaired there after getting rear-ended in northern Michigan.

But here it is 2010. General Motors has slipped through the eye of the needle in bankruptcy. As part of that process, it jettisoned Pontiac to the scrap-heap of automotive brands such as Hudson and Studebaker.

So it was with some sadness, yet thorough understanding, that I noticed the other day that Toyota logos now dominate the building. Sharp Camrys, Prius and Corollas filled the lots and the showroom. People were still there shopping for automotive transportation.

The marketplace continues to provide what people need at a price they are willing to pay. It's a function of good management, sharp economics, public policy, innovative manufacturing and product quality. Sometimes you get it wrong and pay dearly. Others will get it right and succeed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Three friends make ultimate transition

I bid farewell to Jim, Eugene and Bob in December. In a month otherwise filled with holiday joy, celebration, and sugar cookies creamed with pounds of butter, I found myself honoring their memories at their funerals.

The trio, to my knowledge, never met. But their deaths provided another reminder that we all end up in the same place no matter what we did, how much money we made or how we chose to live.

Jim moved a lot of metal as a automotive public relations director but was claimed by heart failure. Eugene saw the worst of society as a prison guard and was felled by a stroke. Bob changed kids lives for the better as a speech therapist for special students but who got blindsided by ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Jim and Eugene got to enjoy more than a decade of relatively happy retired life; Bob struggled with ALS for about three years after getting his diagnosis literally weeks after retiring after 40-plus years of educational service.

The greatness of these three men remains their contribution to their families, their professions and their communities...most of which most people will never fully understand or appreciate. Those people closest to them, however, remember and cherish every laugh, every dinner shared, and every event celebrated.

In the end, you don't need a obituary in The New York Times to become one of the greats. You just need someone who cares.