Skip to content

Vlasic Book Chs 1-12

Vlasic, Bill (2011). Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers–GM, Ford, and Chrysler. William Morrow. This page includes (i) bullet points, (ii) select quotes and (iii) queries for Bill Vlasic’s book. The guideline is two quotes per chapter and no more than 3 bullet points. Queries are at the (assigned) reader’s discretion – perhaps one for some chapters, 2-3 for others.

Chapters 1-3: Joe Kimball

  • Bill Ford as early as January 2005 was searching for a dynamic new leader in the company. He had his eyes on Jim Farley
  • In the mid-2000s and earlier, Ford was struggling to keep up with competition from foreign auto makers. They were especially far behind in small cars which made them little profit.
  • Almost all of both GM and Ford’s profits were coming either from the sale of SUVs and Trucks or financing.
  • In 2005, gas prices became far more volatile and many American consumers moved into smaller, more fuel efficient cars.
  • GM’s stock price starts taking a beating when quarterly numbers show earnings far less than the predicted $4-$5 per share.
  • GM, under pressure from investors, decides to double down on the trucks market, speeding up the development of the T-900, its new generation of pickup trucks.
  • Kirk Kekorian takes the initial steps in buying ten percent of GM.

Key Quotes:

  • Bill Ford to Jim Farley, “‘You know, I need help,’ he said softly. “We’re looking for someone who can help'” (Vlasic, 11).
  • Regarding GM’s report that they lost $1 billion in the first quarter of 2005, “‘That was,’ said John Casesa, the veteran Merrill Lynch analyst, ‘the ‘oh s**t’ moment'” (Vlasic, 20).

Chapter 7: Hampton Ike

  • We begin this chapter with Delphi, a key parts producer for GM, in dire financial straits aggressively attempting to cut costs through immense cuts in pay to UAW (the failure to negotiate lead to filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy)
  • Steve Miller (Delphi) was much to abrasive and harsh with Gettelfinger (UAW), and when a deal could not be reached Miller brought to public light the intraindustry warfare that existed within the auto industry; namely that hourly wage blue collar workers with their unions were being blamed (rightly so to some extent) by salaried white collar workers for placing unbelievable strains on the profitability of North American automobile manufacturing
  • GM also suffered from the burdensome legacy costs associated with pensions, healthcare, and high wages to union employees and retirees (having dropped in market share from 50% to 25% the large amount of fixed cost became increasingly septic). However, Wagoner managed to maneuver a deal with UAW that spared GM from bankruptcy if only for the moment


  • “In August, Miller told John Devine, the GM chief financial officer, that bailing out Delphi would cost the automaker as much as $12 billion” -pg. 82
  • ” Today we are paying double or triple more for hourly labor compared to what prevails in the marketplace” -pg87 Steve Miller on what drove Delphi into bankruptcy
  • “Between the health care savings and other cutbacks, GM expected to shrink its annual operating costs in North America by $5 billion a year” -pg94

Chapter 8: Hampton Ike

  • Rick Wagoner is forced to meet with Jerry York, a sharp financial analyst working for Kerkorian, who Kerkorian is requesting be placed on the GM Board of Directors (Kerkorian was the single largest GM shareholder with roughly 10%)
  • The struggles at GM and Delphi regarding cutting legacy costs and handling bankruptcy problems stemmed from the inability to compete in the changing auto market with foreign firms who made better quality cars at lower costs (non-union workers who were so new that they had no retirees drawing down on pensions or healthcare services)
  • York gives a speech addressing the state of GM and its future, asserting that drastic measures needed to be taken immediately in order to right the ship, but that profitability was possible given the correct leadership and adoption of better business practices


  • “By York’s calculations, General Motors was spending $24 million more every day than the company took in” -pg 97
  • “This was GM they were taking on– the most inbred, hidebound corporate culture of them all, a virtual block of granite of tradition and resistance” -pg 98
  • “GM, York declared, was facing insolvency in a thousand days if management did not shift immediately into what he called ‘crisis mode’.” -pg 112

Chapter 9: Hampton Ike

  • We find Ford following the same path as GM; beset with legacy costs, competing with younger foreign car companies that produced higher quality small cars at much lower costs (ultimately meaning that Ford needed to strike a deal with UAW)
  • Bill Ford decided that he needed to find a true leader and creative genius that could turn Ford around in North America, and he found this in Mark Fields whom he brought over from Ford in Europe (Fields had already done incredible things for Ford in Argentina, Japan, and Europe)
  • Ford ends up cutting a deal with UAW (cutting 30,000 jobs and closing 9 factories in the US), which UAW agreed to with little resistance. Also Vlasic introduces Dieter Zetsche of Daimler Chrysler, who introduces the reader to the problems Zetsche was having with the soon to be unprofitable and highly liable Chrysler in the US (which lead Zetsche to begin private meetings discussing how to sell Chrysler off )


  • “The implosion at GM was a loud wake-up call for the Ford Motor Company” -pg 116
  • “Fields and his team proposed cutting thirty thousand hourly workers, four thousand salaried jobs, and fourteen factories in the United States and Canada” -pg 126
  • “And if that happened (Chrysler saw diminishing market share/sales) , Chrysler had the potential to bring down one of the greatest industrial companies in German History (DaimlerChrysler)” -pg 132

Chapter 10: Kade Kenlon

After the successful Super Bowl hosted in Detroit on February 4th, 2006 Bill Ford recognized that it was time to turn things around at Ford. Major changes were now imminent. He wanted the Ford Motor Company to experience the same type of revitalization that Detroit faced in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

When Mr. Ford reread the “Way Forward” plan, scripted by Mark Fields, he knew that it wasn’t going to be enough. At this point, eliminating jobs and factories wouldn’t lead to the resurrection of the Ford Motor Company. “We can no longer count on trucks and SUVs to carry us” said Ford. Ford’s new goal in addition to the “Way Forward” plan was to introduce new cars that would actually excite consumers. He wanted to lose the safe or dull perception of Ford cars. It wouldn’t be easy however to make the shift towards smaller cars as Ford was being forced to mortgage all there assets in order to receive the necessary 20 billion dollars.

“This is what we’re going to have to do, bear with me. I know people will say we’re crazy for mortgaging the Blue Oval. But this is our best chance to get this thing turned around,” Ford said to Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW. Although it may have seemed absurd, Gettelfinger was willing to listen. Ford had a great relationship with Gettelfinger especially compared to other prominent leaders at GM and Chrysler, like Rick Wagoner or Steve Miller. Gettelfinger also had a great respect for Mr. Ford. In 1999, when one of Ford’s steel suppliers had an accident at their plant, Bill Ford rushed down to the scene to support injured men and comfort family members of those who lost loved ones. Some executives urged Ford not to visit the plant exclaiming, “generals don’t go to the front lines!” Ford responded with, “then bust me down to buck private, because I’m going.” He later would call this, “the worst day of my life.” Gettelfinger really appreciated him for his actions, which made Gettelfinger much more willing to listen to his risky proposal.

Soon after his talks with Gettelfinger, Ford began discussing his successor privately with Joe Laymon, head of human resources. Carlos Ghosn and Dieter Zetsche were big targets for the job but both turned him down. Neither had any reason to leave their respective successful foreign companies to join the struggling Ford. Ford would eventually elect Alan Mulally, former president of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, to become the new CEO.

  • Was Ford’s demeanor more helpful or hurtful to the Ford Motor Company?

Chapter 11: Kade Kenlon

“We know exactly what our cash flow is, and we know exactly what vehicles we are introducing and when. We have never discussed bankruptcy. It has never been an option.” Said Bob Lutz a senior executive for General Motors. A general feeling of dislike surrounded all outsiders to GM. No one outside of the company saw what GM was capable of. Only those working for GM believed that the company had a bright future.

The newly acquired Steve Girsky embodied what a typical outsiders’ view was on the company. Girsky formally worked on Wall Street and was brought in to GM to become the financial analysts. In one of his earliest speeches to the company he spoke about the necessary changes that needed to be made if GM was going to survive. He ripped the company apart and suggested they step out of the box they were in. Girsky went on to say, “We are not the first car company to face an extremely difficult situation, others have successfully rebounded. But we are unlikely to rebound with a business-as-usual approach. And this is likely to make a lot of people uncomfortable.” Although Girsky did anger many members of the board, he served as a reality check for GM.

Meanwhile, GM was feeling pressure from one of its biggest stockholders, Kirk Kerkorian. Kerkorian wanted to have Jerry York represent him on the board of executives. GM was not happy to introduce York to the board, but they had to. As a formal action, York had to be voted onto the board; however, at the meeting where he would gain admittance to join board meetings, he was not present. GM was trying to send a somewhat subtle message to York that he wasn’t really welcome. Although, in the meeting that followed the introduction of Jerry York, many of York’s ideas were taken into action. First, dividends were cut from 50 cents to 25 cents, members of the board had their salaries cut by 50%, and senior executives like Bob Lutz had their salaries cut by 30%. Health care plans were also dropped for white-collar workers.

  • What was the style of Ford vs. the style of GM?

Comment by Joseph Kimbell April 30, 2014 at 5:47 pm

While Ford’s style appears far more cutthroat and more difficult to work under, GM’s complacency proved to be its downfall. Wagoner is painted by Vlasic as a “steady hand.” Unfortunately, his hand may have been too steady throughout a time period that demanded radical change and restructuring. The evolution of these styles might stem from the two companys’ respective places in the American market. Since the 1950s, Ford has been the little brother to GM. While it is an extraordinarily large company, its market share has consistently fallen behind GM’s. Thus, Ford’s culture would develop more as the underdog, always fighting to upset its big brother. Meanwhile, GM sitting atop the North American car market would naturally develop a sense of complacency as Ford was never fully able to catch it.

Chapter 12: Kade Kenlon

Let the factory shutdowns begin! Less than 90 days after the announcement that GM would be cutting employees and factories, the Oklahoma City factory was taken out of commission. Total hardo move by GM. An area known for it aggressive storms was again start to the center of a new storm that featured GM cutting many of its factories.

This storm was assertive right out of the gates. The OKC factory was one of GM’s oldest plants but was newly renovated, including 700 million dollars to build a new paint shop. The shut down came as a shock to everyone.

The workers weren’t the only ones who suffered. The surrounding community benefited from the factory and the thousands of workers who had jobs there. Without it, there was no one going to the restaurants, no one buying gas, or buying merchandise from retail stores. The factory was virtually the life of the town. It was so important to that city that Oklahoma’s governor Brad Henry offered 200 million dollars to keep the plant running but GM was not changing its mind.

The workers that were laid off entered the jobs bank. The jobs bank was setup as a holding place for workers who were waiting on a plant to finish up renovations or for people that were searching for another factory job within a 50-mile radius. In this case, there were no other factories within a 50-mile radius, and the OKC factory would not be starting back up for awhile. Workers were still paid however they were closely watched and had a restricted amount of freedom. For example, they were not allowed to sleep or to play cards.

GM finally decided on a buyout for workers in the job banks. Surprisingly, more people took the offer than expected. “A buyout? I’ll take it.” The deal was as follows: if you had more than ten years experience, you could take 140,000 dollars and lose health benefits. If you had 30 or more years of experience, you could keep your health benefits and well as 35,000 dollars. Henderson was also the first GM representative to develop a healthy relationship with Gettelfinger.


  • One worker described the scenario, “I left on Thursday to go on vacation and my pastor called and said, ‘Hey, Bobby, I’m sorry about your job,’ I thought he was messing with me. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
  • One member described the [jobs bank] scenario, “I feel like I’m literally in a vegetative state. I have nothing to think about.” Wall Street heavily criticized the job banks saying, “They’re basically spending hundreds of millions of dollars and getting nothing for it.”
  • A key player in the success of this process was Fritz Henderson. “Look, I’m 100 percent focused, and I’m not interested in getting off track,” said Henderson.

Discussion Questions

  • Were the job banks really that miserable?
  • How do we balance the upfront cost with the ability to permanently eliminate capacity and (for younger workers) not incur legacy costs? [the prof]

Comment by Joseph Kimbell April 30, 2014 at 5:39 pm

The Jobs Bank seems indicative to me of the power the UAW holds over the auto industry. This power stems from the good times in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when the Detroit Three faced very little foreign competition and enjoyed prices that would only exist in an oligopoly. The car companies had little motivation to negotiate favorable contracts with the UAW because they were enjoying incredibly high profit margins. When those margins began to shrink, however, the UAW’s wages and benefits did not shrink with them. Ultimately this lack of dynamic employee relations proved highly detrimental when profit margins began to shrink.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply