• Dec 20, 2007
I've always loved live theater. The more dramatic the better. And last week I was treated to one of the most enthralling performances I've ever seen. It was officially called The 2007 Chrysler Holiday Media Party.
First, the backdrop to the plot. Just days before the performance was to take place the director, Chrysler PR honcho Jason Vines, quit the company. He stomped off in protest over artistic differences he had with the new producer, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli.

Now you have to realize that the audience at this annual event was mainly made up of people from the automotive media, people who have known Jason for years. And while some of them may have had a run-in with Jason at one point or another, he was respected by most. Bright, blunt and always entertaining, Jason brought an intensity to the business seldom seen by others in his field. And we especially looked forward to the raucous comedy skits he'd perform at these gatherings. So his abrupt departure cast a pall on the whole evening.

But the show must go on, and so it did. Yet, it was quite a different performance than if Jason had been directing.
The event was held at the Detroit Science Center, a modern educational facility painted in bright cheerful colors but built to industrial standards with exposed steel girders and ductwork, and polished concrete floors. As a "holiday party" venue it offered all the emotional comfort of a hospital waiting room.

The audience was packed into an atrium comprised of wide carpeted steps set in a big U-shape that almost encircled the podium, creating a theater-in-the-round in the best Shakespearean tradition. As the performance was about to begin, someone dimmed the holiday muzak that had been playing in the background. But they neglected to turn off one of the science displays that was thumping out what sounded like a slow heartbeat. And so that "thump, thump, thump" served as the soundtrack and heightened the sense of drama.

Act One, Scene One opened with the ragged remains of Jason's staff lining up on stage left like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They were flanked by the new bosses to whom they now report, the Human Resources staff. Shoulder to shoulder, in two rows, they were arrayed in military-like precision, as if someone had drawn a chalk line on the floor. As one who always looks for symbolism in literature, I instantly caught on. They were there to "toe the line."

And there was so much to read into their body language! In the middle of the first line stood Nancy Rae, the senior VP of Human Resources, who now has PR reporting to her. Standing immediately on her right hand side, so close they were touching, was Lori McTavish, a PR veteran, former head of Pubic Relations for K-Mart, and who Michael Moore made into something of a hero in his movie "Bowling For Columbine." Off to the left, one step away, was the affable Dave Barnas, now ostensibly in charge of PR. I say ostensibly because the body language between the two women clearly conveyed the way this hierarchy is headed.

All of a sudden, the persona dramatis himself, Bob Nardelli, strode purposefully to the podium. He welcomed us all, covered some of the company's highlights, swerved off into a sermon about our brave troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, swung back to tell us about the company's philanthropic activities, then talked about how fortunate we all are to live in America. Very emotional issues, but all delivered with absolutely zero emotion. That's not easy to do.

At this point you could sense an unwritten dialog going on in the minds of everyone watching. How fortunate indeed, we mused, to live in a country where one corporate executive can make more money than the other 200 of us in the room put together. And how especially fortunate compared to those 10,000 employees he just axed. I must say I've always enjoyed a drama that uses a touch of irony to make its point.

Nardelli also spoke about Jason, a perfunctory talk that cited his service but carefully avoided praising him, and explained that he left because, "We just don't share the same sense of humor." Brilliant, I thought! Using humor to explain why you don't have a sense of humor. I laughed out loud, but it was an awkward moment. I was the only one who laughed and the people sitting around me turned to look. Oh well, I guess they don't go to the theater much.

Nardelli's speech was over and now it was the sensei-like Vice Chairman Jim Press's turn at the podium. Speaking from the heart, he warmly delivered what seemed like an extemporaneous talk, carefully praised the company's dealers, then seamlessly handed it over to president Tom LaSorda who bounded up to the mike.

"Big news, everybody," LaSorda boomed, "we just got sold again." (Pause). "Whoops, wrong speech," he deadpanned. Big laugh and applause from the audience. Finally, I thought, now we're getting somewhere.

But no such luck. He then carefully read the printed lines in his prepared text and turned the podium back to Nardelli. "Ha-ha Tom," the big boss said, "I see you didn't stick to the script, even after all those rehearsals we did this afternoon." You could hear a pin drop.

The next actor up was a spokesman for the March of Dimes. A fireball of energy, he delivered a soliloquy about how great America is and was about to hit his crescendo when all of a sudden one of the people in the audience fainted dead away and hit the floor with a clunk. "Is there a doctor in the house?" someone shouted. People rushed about. Everyone else was craning their necks trying to see what was going on. "Who is it?" people asked.

The Chrysler people were dumbstruck. They stood helpless at their assigned positions watching the surreal scene swirl around them. No one was prepared for this. All but Jim Press that is. He went over to see if he could help the guy who fainted. My hero!

The poor March of Dimes guy was speechless. He didn't know what to do. He turned this way, then that. He leaned forward, then back. But, like I said, the show must go on. So he punched the palm of his hand and started up his speech again. Right where he left off. And at the same level of intensity. What a pro, I thought!

There were some other quick speeches, and a photo-op with a giant poster-board check for charity, but clearly we had hit the denouement. The guy who fainted had revived and was regaining his senses. This drama was over.

A good time to beat the rush to the parking lot, I thought, and headed for my car. It was a wintry night outside, but it was that kind of cold which instantly clears your head. And very different from the kind of cold that I witnessed inside.

###

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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 24 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      Well, I was in PR for an automotive company in Detroit, and I can't begin to tell you how pertinent this "boring" story is. It is a perfect synopsis for what's going on at Chrysler. I can see how the average reader, who cares about nothing but HP number and 0-60 times, might find this boring, But, as someone who used to be ont eh "inside", I can tell you this story is very appropriate right now.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I am just a fan who likes to follow the auto industry.

        It doesn't take an insider to appreciate John's comments. Admittedly I'm a John fanboy, because I love Autoline Detroit. Even with that said, I don't always agree with him. Here however, it seems so obvious that this is a pretty big article. I mean, come on - if someone can read between the lines and see what John is saying here...

        For those who see nothing but the usual in this article, pay attention to what he chooses to emphasize. You can find a pretty powerful message if you look. He's got an interesting theme in the article.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Of course, I probably don't get any points for calling Mr. McElroy a reporter and not journalist.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I hope we are not seeing the beginning of act VI of the Chrysler Failure Greek Tragedy, which would be entitled "Home-grown egomaniacs complete the gutting of the Iconic Chrysler Corporation, begun by the Teutonic ego-maniac Daimler-Benz”.

      This once proud American Corporation is being steadily ruined by the people entrusted with its salvation, all because their national, corporate or individual ego’s are greater than the calling to which they signed up for, to right the ship and steer a correct course.

      Act I: Iacocca saves the day with the strength of his personality, his magnetism, connections, and industry savvy.

      Act II: Iacocca saves the day again, after taking his eyes off the ball while responding to his own stardom, and allowing the company to again drift off course.

      Act III: The Chrysler board of directors “dumps” Iacocca, and brings in a younger GM insider to run the show; hoping younger, fresher ideas would be the ticket to getting off the roller-coaster and on to continued success.

      Act IV: The GM guy agrees to merge with (sell to) Daimler-Benz, and go home with a sack full of money and call it a career. In the process, one of the best car guys in America “retires” from Chrysler and finds his way to GM. Suddenly, GM car designs and products become coherent again, and GM finds new hope and new customers.

      Act V: After many misjudgments of the problems of the American High volume market, Daimler brings in a ringer in Dieter Zetche, who actually seemed to get things figured out. His success thus far is noticed by Stuttgart, and the architect of the “merger” Jergan Schemp is dumped in favor of Dieter. But the folks back home did not like Dieter’s obvious solutions to Chrysler’s need to share more parts and designs to save costs. Again, a form of ego on a nationalistic and corporate level, but ego is ego, and the bigger the ego the more the damage and the greater the loss. Lost opportunity has its own cost, and the loss has its own economics of scale.

      Act VI: Daimler dumps Chrysler, giving Chrysler new hope and new opportunity with new freedom. But alas, in search of wealth, power and fame, in comes the home grown egos, and the stage is set for gutting all that survived and was good so far, including some home-grown excellent management. Will history repeat itself? After the damage is done, will the villains be rounded up to meet justice? How many more giant egos can Chrysler survive?

      Chrysler, the American Icon, once known for it’s engineering accomplishments, and lately it’s styling leadership, what will become of you? America needs you, the loss would be profound and effect generations.

      Dave Lyall, Livonia, Michigan
      • 7 Years Ago
      What do they do, pass the same speech notes from party to party? And I think that guy fainted from boredom more than anything else...Thanks for the (YAWN) interesting read Mr. McElroy...I liked it better when you reported on actual vehicles...
      • 7 Years Ago
      This fella is nothing but an insider, he will never give an honest review of a car. I saw him interview some Nissan guy, he was asking question only about GT-R, which is super popular. But forgot to ask why is Nissan making such horrible trucks, or is Nissan planning to exit segment in light of new Tundra (only a week later Nissan said that they will partner with Chrysler--to survive)

      This guy's interviews are like treats to auto industry by senator Dingell.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Seems to me that the leadership team at the new Chrysler seems ominously focused on what the bean counters want.

      Reminds me of another Detroit based firm in the 80s and 90s that saw year after year of increasingly poor performance and from which they're only now, with product guys front and center, crawling out of.

      Just my 2¢, as usual.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Ever notice on the show how his guest's name is only shown once, and John McElroy's is shown like 3 times...

      seems kinda full of himself for not knowing much.
      • 7 Years Ago
      So how long before LaSorda is the next to be ejected? You can bet that Nardelli now has him in his sights...
      • 7 Years Ago
      I'll tell you what: "Chrysler, under Cerberus, ain't gonna make it."

      Man, put into the whole context of what has happened to Chrysler this year, witnessing this event must have been positively surreal.

      John, I really enjoyed reading this piece. You are a great addition to AutoBlog.

      Merry Christmas!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Nice article John, I like how you write like you talk (on the show at least). The picture you paint indicates we can expect to see some more departures from Chrysler.
      • 7 Years Ago
      In other words it was horribly boring that the highlight of the evening was someone fainting out of sheer boredom?

      Joke aside, I hope the person who fainted is all right.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I kept waiting for some great revelation that would spark hope for Chrysler's survival. Did anyone mention product? Maybe they will carry the tooling down to Brazil and Argentina and continue making the same cars for a couple of decades the way Kaiser did back in the 50's. Or maybe Wal-Mart can buy the tooling for the Crossfire and stuff a Caddy V-8 in it and call it the Allstate II.
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