It’s a shame it took the Obama administration to oust Rick Wagoner. GM’s board should have done it months, if not years ago. This was a corporate boss who never saw a tough decision he didn’t want to run from, or a critic he didn’t want to slap around. Whether killing superfluous car brands or taking the fight to the UAW – both of which could and should have been done long before the current crisis in the industry – Wagoner failed to step up to the awesome responsibility he had to preserve and protect America’s greatest auto maker.
GM deserved courageous leadership. It didn’t get it. Even in good times Wagoner couldn’t accept the gentlest of criticisms or critics. The most specific analyses got his dander up rather than giving him pause. As long ago as 1996, for example, Wagoner, then head of GM’s north American operations, rebuffed warnings that Saturn’s faddish heyday appeared to have come and gone – its longterm viability as a durable marque in question.
Now, as we know, Saturn has faded. More significantly, why he let Oldsmobile die so slow a death is one for the auto historians. How it is that he kept both the Pontiac and Buick brands alive when Chevy and Caddy could have served as the two core American brands – this, too, is hard to fathom. The Hummer acquisition? An obvious blunder. Much more significantly, Wagoner ran NAO (North American Operations) when GM came late to the lucrative light-truck (SUV, pickups) party of the mid-1990s. And then, having belatedly created more parts and platforms for these high-profit-margin vehicles, Wagoner’s GM lacked the nimbleness to move away from them as high oil prices and a looming credit crunch spurred buyers to more fuel-efficient cars.
It’s hard to identify Wagoner’s successes; perhaps one could credit him with Cadillac’s revival in the mid to late 1990s. But even GM’s China strategy – which looks pretty good at this moment – was the work of his former boss, John F. “Jack” Smith. Wagoner’s overdue ousting reflects on a board of directors which is representative of a complacent era that died with the bull market, free-flowing credit, and, now as we know, the American car industry.