Friday, June 5, 2015

Answering Debbie: Why I am Driving a Toyota

     My car needed service.  I took it to a dealership on the way home from North Park University.  While waiting for my car, I noticed a poster of a photo I have seen before.  It is an old black and white photo in Grand Central Terminal with the sun pouring in through, I believe, the window on the east side of the building.  I took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook with the this message:  "A surprising photo to find hanging from the Toyota dealership in Lincolnwood, Illinois. Immediately, I felt a pull to whatever New York State of mind I thought I once had."

     A friend from Burns Elementary School, who now lives in Texas, made the following comment:  "That is a great pic, but how could you be from Detroit and be shopping for a Toyota?"
     I started reply and after about three hundred words, I decided I was writing a blog post.  So, here we are with my response to Debbie.


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     Well good question Debbie.  
     It is a question I am still sensitive to as I do care for both the city of Detroit and the people I know that work in the auto industry. 
     When I worked in the auto industry, I exclusively bought American.  Not only that, I exclusively bought Fords because that is where I worked.  I kept buying Fords even after I left Ford and worked for automotive parts suppliers TRW and Rockwell International.
      Because I began my career in quality, I knew that Toyota made better cars at that time. Fact. Period.  My first ever business trip was to visit dealerships that sold both Fords and Toyotas.  We were putting together a database so Ford could actually quantify the warranty repairs for their cars versus Toyotas.  In opening a file drawer, back then such information was not digitized as it would be today, we could tell immediately which folders were for Ford vehicles and which were Toyotas.  The Toyota folders were visibly much thinner.  Without any analysis, I knew that Toyotas simply had significantly less repairs than Ford cars and trucks.  It made a huge impact on me.  
     When I left that industry and became just a consumer,  I moved to Connecticut and worked in New York City.  Yet, I kept buying American cars out of a sense of duty and loyalty that I believe Debbie was invoking with her question.  Out of curiosity and getting a very good deal, I bought in 1994 Camry. Wow. Night and day difference. It was a great car.  It is arguably the best Camry vintage ever made.  I still kept buying myself American but I bought my wife Toyota sedans and then Lexus SUVs. 
     I bought myself two Chevy Blazers. They were OK.  Not great, just OK. I liked them well enough until they started to become very costly rattle traps at about 70 - 80K miles.  That was my expectation for American cars and they lived up to that low expectation.  After the two Blazers, I bought a 2002 4Runner. Again, it was simply a better SUV.  It is 2015 and I still have it. It has 146k miles and runs well. I plan on keeping it till it has at least 250K or maintenance costs more than $4000/year as that starts to equal the very low end of a new car.  It was an oil change and replacement of an air fuel sensor bank that took me to the Toyota dealership where the Grand Central Terminal poster was hanging.
     My auto buying choices are personal and have proven to be sound economic decisions.  My choices are not why Detroit and the auto industry failed.  General Motors and Ford failed me.  
      Regarding the downfall of Detroit, there were many contributors.  It was the auto industry, changing racial demographics, awful local governments, and white flight to name a few. I haven't lived in the city of Detroit since 1969 and the metro area since 1990. Debbie could have easily asked me why I left Detroit, but as she no longer lives there herself she knows the answer. Economic opportunity took me elsewhere. That move to Connecticut was the best single career decision I ever made. Sure, I miss people and places in the metro Detroit.  It was tough to leave but I did and it ended up being a good thing.
      As for the US auto industry?  To me the answer is inept corporate leadership at all three. They were unable to marshal their corporate talent to build vehicles that could cost effectively compete on design and performance quality with foreign automakers. It is that simple.  Look at the market share graph.  It speaks of epic management failure.  In the late 1960s, the Big Three had almost 90% of the US vehicle market share.  They are under 50% now.  This does not happen because they had sound strategies, excellent product development, and world class manufacturing.  
     This is pretty much how the rest of the world looks at the US auto industry leadership.  I do believe folks in Detroit might admit to it now too.  Since the shock of the Great Recession, it seems that the Ford and GM may finally have have management in place who have restructured and retrenched the companies to produce cars and trucks that can compete globally.  There is a great book, American Icon by Bryce Hoffman, on the transformation engineered at Ford by Alan Mulally who joined the company in 2006 and recently retired.  While the book is about the past ten years, it captures the ingrained feudal culture that paralyzed the US auto industry.  
      Sure I no longer buy American cars.  But, my loyalty continued past my employment with three car purchases which were not as fulfilling as any Toyota or Lexus product I have purchased.  I am not talking about toothbrushes, computers, or TVs.  We are talking about cars that, next to our homes, are our largest  purchases.  Should I spend $40K for a car that will last maybe 100K miles that costs me more to maintain and has lower quality out of loyalty?  Should, I continue to shop at Sears just because they are a Chicago icon and that is where I live now?  No.  Companies have to earn and retain customer loyalty... not expect it.
      Here is a quote on Toyota from Alan Mulally from circa 2006 (American Icon, page 130):  
They make products that people want, and they do it with less resources and less time than anybody in the world.  They're a magical machine.  This system of continually improving the quality, putting the variations into the product line that people want  and doing it with minimum resources and minimum time is absolutely where we have to go.  If you at Ford, it's the antithesis.
     I look forward to the day when Ford or GM lures me back as a customer.
     Sorry for the long winded reply to your simple question Debbie.

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