I'm writing this perched up on the 70th floor of the Renaissance Center - the global headquarters of General Motors in downtown Detroit - gazing out onto the sprawling metropolis below that has spawned the dreams that have been handed down through generations. Its opening day for the North American International Auto Show and there's an overwhelming sense of pride filtering through the local folk here. It is heartening to see how this event literally becomes the talk of the town. Everyone from the porter to the cab driver usually begin their conversation by boasting of a homegrown vehicle that is making its debut in this year's show; everyone is clued in, which serves as a subtle reminder how the locals still look at the big 3 as families before companies over here.
Welcome to Detroit, the passion capital of the car-loving world. The motor city. Here's a place where dreams don't just come true, they're simply built for you. You see, more than any other place, Detroiters mark their lives by the cars they've driven and the cars they've made. It goes much deeper than a job – it’s a passion. A lifestyle. A purpose. And nothing brings it all together quite like the North American International Auto Show (NAIS); if there was ever a shopping mall for dreams, this would be it. And for Detroiters, it is much more than a show – it’s a statement.
Economically, the NAIAS adds more than $500 million annually to the Southeast Michigan economy, with nearly $100 million directly to the city. It's a world-class event that positively impacts local exhibit companies, show attendees, charities, businesses, and residents every year. It is the single largest economic event in the region, and, on a national level, even tops out the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the Superbowl.
But beneath the theatrical lights, dancing girls and expensive car polish, lies a gritty tale of human struggle, with last year marking one of the rockiest roads in the American auto industry's proud history, and General Motors in particular, taking the full brunt of what they look at as a legacy cost. “The problems we face today is natural for any company that has serviced its country for almost 100 years”, explained Rick Wagoner, GM chairman and chief executive officer during a closed door conversation with C! Magazine. “We have simply hit an era where our employees have aged in disproportionate numbers to our active workforce, and, unlike most developed, industrialized nations, the United States does not have an adequate health care program – which means the buck stops here.”
And boy, have those bucks skyrocketed, with the last negotiated amount topping 3 billion dollars a year to service their retirees. “The biggest difference between America and the rest of the world is our legal system.” Bob Lutz, GM's brutally frank and animated Vice chairman chimed in during a completely candid moment. “In the U.S., you pay, say around a hundred thousand dollars for a helicopter. That same helicopter in Europe costs 60,000 dollars. The reason for that is because if you crash your helicopter in Europe, it was because you did something wrong. If you crash in the States, it must be someone else's fault – it becomes the lawyer's job to find whoever it is that’s got the biggest pockets and go chase them. Therefore, companies have to build that into their costs”, he continued, throwing his hands up in exasperation.
So, between inadequate health care programs and a distorted legal system, the world's largest automaker was brought to its knees. But yet this comes in the wake of General Motor's most successful year since 1973. In Asia Pacific alone, GM sold 1,065,000 vehicles and increased its market share in that region to 5.8 percent in 2005, giving them a growth of 20.1 percent, compared to the estimated industry growth of 6.5 percent. It also marked the first time the world's largest automaker's sales in the region surpassed 1 million vehicles in a calendar year.
In Thailand, GM's sales rose 96 percent to 33,943 units due to high demand for the Chevrolet Colorado pickup and Chevrolet Optra wagon, while in Australia, the Holden Commodore remained the best selling car for its tenth consecutive year. “The only way to come out of this by building more and more innovative models that people get excited about”, continued GM's charismatic, yet down-to-earth chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner as he fixed his steely blue gaze on me. Those eyes must have seen some pretty trying times, but judging by the smile that would break out on his lips as he talked of some new models, they obviously see pretty far into a bright future.
And the future is now.
As the curtains were pulled off the stunning new concept Camaro during a fever pitched press debut, an industry sat in awe. Shellshocked. It said everything the humble chairman wanted to say about the direction of GM, and then some. It is the most aggressive and bold design to come out of the company in decades, and sends a powerful visual message to its detractors that the world's largest automaker, who has been the global industry sales leader since 1931, means business.
Americans love a good fight and this Camaro, plus the new affordable hybrid technology on the Saturn and the displacement on demand technology on the larger SUVs that shuts off half the cylinders during highway cruising throws just the kind of knock out punch that will get the crowd back on their feet. Forget horsepower, this is powered by the pride of 325,000 employees that have put their faith in a company dedicated to building dreams and filling the world's driveways with memories.