Business: Tales of the 14th Floor

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A kiss-and-tell exposé of GM

Across between a fortress and a cathedral, the General Motors world headquarters in Detroit is as impregnable as the corporation it houses. The company cultivates an image of efficiency and dignity, taking special care to preserve an aura of sacrosanct wisdom in its most senior executive offices on the 14th floor of the building. But an entertaining and surely controversial new book makes that aura look more like a fog as it lifts some of the confidentiality from the world's largest industrial corporation.

On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors (Wright Enterprises; $12.95) was written by J. Patrick Wright, former Detroit bureau chief of Business Week. But by all accounts it is drawn from the words of John Z. (for Zachary) DeLorean, a 17-year GM veteran who abruptly quit a $650,000-a-year job as group executive for cars and trucks in 1973. DeLorean, now 54, had a good shot at the GM presidency. But apparently his fast life, long hair and penchant for marrying young women (thrice) and divorcing them (twice) did not fit the GM mold.

He and Wright agreed to co-author the book shortly after DeLorean left. Wright interviewed the executive at length, got DeLorean's personal papers and says that "anything of a substantive or controversial nature is either on tape or appears in John's handwritten notes. It's airtight." But DeLorean backed out of the project; he has started an auto plant in Northern Ireland and may want GM's help in securing parts and dealers. After years of frustration, Wright took out a $50,000 second mortgage on his house and published the book himself. The work is presented as DeLorean's first-person account, and he now says that he generally would not repudiate it.

DeLorean's kiss-and-tell story of GM in the '60s and '70s depicts senior GM executives as men hemmed in by tradition, swamped in paper work, and totally in thrall to their company careers.

Invention and flair, he charges, have disappeared from GM, which "has not had a significant technical innovation since the automatic transmission."

The path to the top, he asserts, required a cultivated subservience. He says, "It was called 'kiss-my-assing' when it was done by a supplier to a customer, and 'loyalty' when it was done inside GM."

According to the book, high managers were directed from above to give contributions to the company's political campaign fund in assigned amounts up to $3,000. The checks were made out to cash. Ranking executives made every effort to have their meal checks and other expenses picked up by obsequious subordinates so that if shareholders' inquired at the annual meeting, the brass could boast of modest expense accounts. Spying on a competitor was not unknown.

DeLorean alleges that in the early 1960s, Chevrolet had two moles working in Ford's product-planning area. "For a price," he says, they "passed on new product information.

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