Thursday, November 20, 2008

Out-of-Touch CEOs Shoot Themselves in the Foot

It should be obvious, even to the asleep-at-the-switch folks at the Big Three, that running a company that’s losing money hand-over-fist, planning to ask the taxpayers of the United States for help, and then flying their company’s expensive, plush private jet to Washington is, to be kind, not the smartest move.

It wasn’t.

"There is a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hand, saying that they're going to be trimming down and streamlining their businesses," New York Democrat Rep. Gary Ackerman told CEOs Alan Mulally of Ford, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler and Richard Wagoner of General Motors at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee this week.

The three auto companies told CNN that the CEOs' travel on expensive corporate jets was standard procedure, and all three have policies requiring their CEOs to travel in private jets for safety reasons. "While always being mindful of company costs, all business travel requires the highest standard of safety for all employees," Chrysler spokeswoman Lori McTavish said in a statement. Not only is commercial air travel not safe enough for these guys, it is not expensive enough for their tastes, either.

"They're coming to Washington to beg the taxpayers to help them. It's unseemly to be running around on a $20,000 flight versus a $500 round trip," commented Thomas Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

This display is an excellent demonstration of the attitude that has the Big Three in such a mess, a mess that will take a lot more than a multi-billion dollar loan to fix. U.S. automakers have not modified their business operations to fit the times, and their extravagant travel methods epitomize what’s wrong with the industry. But neither the CEOs nor the United Auto Workers seem willing to do what must be done: Declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Contrary to what many believe, Chapter 11 doesn’t mean the companies are closing; they would continue to operate while they restructure, clean up their operation and get rid of excess expense.

But restructuring means a likely change at the top, and Mulally, Nardelle and Wagoner have multi-million dollar contracts and cushy jobs they’d rather hold on to. Restructuring also likely means renegotiating the sweetheart deal the union has with the auto makers, and UAW president Ron Gettelfinger isn’t about to make concessions, even if it means running the Big Three into the ground.

Fortunately, some members of Congress are intent on holding the auto makers responsible for their plight, and expecting something in return for some financial underpinning. Unfortunately, Congressional Democrat leaders don’t seem to be among them.

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