The secret lives of auto executives

November 3, 2009

Ed Whitacre sneaks off to breakfast at a Detroit greasy spoon. Sergio Marchionne’s attention to detail extends to the condition of his factories’ bathrooms. And Bill Ford helped save his great-grandfather’s company by hocking the blue oval. 

These are just a few of the glimmers of top Detroit auto executives’ lives that you get when you sit down with Ron Gettelfinger, head of the United Auto Workers union. 

Marchionne, the chief executive of Italian automaker Fiat — which pulled Chrysler out of bankruptcy this year, seems to be “extremely respectful” of his workforce, Gettelfinger told the Reuters Autos Summit in Detroit on Tuesday. 

“I know he’s went out into the facilities and one of the things that he did was walk into the restroom to inspect it. Now you don’t normally see that happen,” Gettelfinger said. “But he truly believes in the power of the people, the value they add to the process.” 

General Motors chairman Whitacre is also a fan of unannounced factory visits, a detail Gettelfinger may have picked up at one of their morning meetings. 

“There’s a little dive up the street that we go up here and have breakfast sometimes,” Gettelfinger said. 

He also recalled a call that came from then-Ford CEO Bill Ford three years ago, when the automaker was preparing a major debt offer — a move that helped it to be the only U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy this year. 

“I remember him very well calling me to say, ‘In case you hear anything, we think now is the time to go out into the market and build up some debt.’ And the term he used was ‘hock the blue oval,'” Gettelfinger recalled. 

That move, while painful at the time, was likely a major reason the company did not have to turn to Washington for a bailout as rivals GM and Chrysler did, Gettelfinger said.

“Ford went out and did it the hard way,” Gettelfinger said. “And I think that has resonated with the buying public.”

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