There's nothing like a little pressure to get things moving.
Under the gun from Wall Street, which has relegated its bonds to junk status, and under the microscope of billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, General Motors top executives finally may be ready to stomp on the throttle of an action plan designed to right the financially troubled company and regain some of the lost market share that has Toyota threatening to take over as the world's No.1 auto maker.
It's been a long time coming.
For decades, GM has been content to play like a team with a big lead. Unwilling to take too many chances, it has avoided huge blunders but watched its position slowly but steadily erode just the same.
It's not that the auto maker hasn't made some critical improvements or the occasional tough decision. It killed Oldsmobile when the division's sales continued to lag, and since 1995 it has reduced its North American assembly plant roster by a half-dozen facilities and slashed its worldwide employment in half.
It has taken great quality strides — landing five first place winners in the latest J.D. Power rankings. Its steady rise in productivity — GM runs four of the top five most efficient North American assembly plants according to the Harbour Report — has been equally impressive.
And it's not that CEO Rick Wagoner has made many huge gaffes in his five years at the top — the exception, the ill-fated Fiat Auto tie-up that cost GM $2 billion to exit.
It's just that, publicly at least, there hasn't been that sense of urgency that has marked some of the most recent successful comebacks — such as the Carlos Ghosn-led resurrection of Nissan in Japan or the Dieter Zetsche turnaround at Chrysler here in the U.S.
By contrast, the more Nero-like GM has been content to simply make it to the next economic bubble, rather than undergo a massive, more permanent overhaul.
The result typically is two steps forward, one step back. The auto maker still has too much capacity and product overlap, refuses to push the United Auto Workers union very far in contract negotiations and remains averse to risk in its vehicle designs.
But that could change now that GM management — and its board of directors — has Kerkorian looking over its shoulder. No one is quite sure whether Kerkorian, who is moving to become the auto maker's third-largest shareholder, is a passive investor or one with an eye toward controlling the board and filling GM's management suites with his handpicked lieutenants.
But few inside GM are eager to find out — potentially making the timing right for the current regime to make some bold moves.
At least one top executive appears comfortable with being backed into the corner.
“I love being in the position of an underdog,” says Mark LaNeve, GM North America vice president-vehicle sales, service and marketing. It makes winning “all the sweeter.”
And who knows? It just might be the motivation GM has been waiting for all these years.
David Zoia is editorial director of WardsAuto.com