Peter DeLorenzo, aka "The Autoextremist," walks a precarious line every Wednesday when his Netzine, Autoextremist.com, is updated. DeLorenzo's six-year-old site draws some 65,000 readers a week and could soon rival the industry bible, Automotive News, in readership and clout. On one hand, DeLorenzo jots highly opinionated rants and raves about what car companies and their executives are doing, and on the other he's either working as a consultant for those companies or trying to get work as one.
Nevertheless, he says his weekly postings are always objective. "If I wasn't objective, people would figure me out very quickly," says DeLorenzo.
Indeed, he has had car companies call him after a provocative post and ask him to visit their office and do a more detailed explanation of what he finds wrongheaded about an ad campaign, new model, or brand strategy. He has worked for General Motors (GM ), Chrysler (DCX ), and at least one Japanese auto maker, in addition to ad agencies for Chevy, Dodge, and Nissan (NSANY ). And he's trolling for new clients every week even as he criticizes their businesses.
Unlike other bloggers and zine writers, though, DeLorenzo won't tell his readers which companies he's working for even if he's writing about them. In 2003, when he worked for DaimlerChrysler, he took a hiatus from writing every week and disclosed to his readers that he was working for the German-American auto maker. Later, after his contract was canceled, DeLorenzo criticized Chrysler executives, and many believed it was sour grapes over losing his monthly retainer. "That wasn't true, and I decided that in my case less disclosure about my consulting would be cleaner and better for both the Web site and the consulting business," he says.
Never bashful, DeLorenzo has these choice words -- this sampling is a combination of his already published online barbs and kudos plus some new thoughts -- for several of the auto industry's leading characters:
On G. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM chairman and chief executive:
He's smart, schooled in GM's "system," quick-tempered, but clearly unwilling to turn the company upside down, preferring the gradual transformation approach. He's betting that he has the time to do it. I think he has no more than two years to get it done. He's not a big fan of mine because he thought my columns on [former GM North American President] Ron Zarella veered into personal attacks.
When I first started Autoextremist.com, my relentless attacks on Zarella's "brand management" fiasco put the Web site on the map. I was proved to be right, as virtually all of Zarella's "brand management" initiatives were discarded after he left the company.
On GM Vice-Chairman Robert Lutz, who's directing a new generation of product design:
He's still The Real Deal. "Maximum Bob" has done more to revamp GM's internal car-development processes than people outside the company realize. He has made a huge difference in that area, and he has also allowed GM's design department to recapture its long-lost swagger. People are impatient that they aren't "seeing" the improvements, but you can't do away with lead times [the time it takes to bring a new model to market from sketches to showroom] in this business.
His joining GM was a shrewd move, one of Wagoner's smartest decisions. One anecdote -- when Bob sealed the deal to join GM [after having been chairman of battery maker Exide], he confessed to me that he went back and read every single one of my columns in order to "get my head back in the game." [Lutz had been vice-chairman at Chrysler until 1998 and was a storied product-development guru.]
I also wrote a column on what Bob should do when he joined the company, and Bob acknowledged that it was as if he wrote it himself. Bob waves around my columns frequently down at "The Tubes" -- GM's monolithic headquarters along the Detroit River. A GM spokesperson said Lutz couldn't be reached for comment.
On Bill Ford, Ford Motor (F ) chairman and chief executive:
Bill is smart, confident, engaging, and a normal, "real" guy -- with a genuine sense of history and a strong desire to protect the legacy of Ford. The only CEO with his family name "on the door," he's just now getting his bearings and directing the company where he believes it needs to go. He needs to take a hard look at Ford marketing [and that's taking too long], but I think he has done an excellent job, all things considered.
On DaimlerChrysler Chairman Jürgen Schrempp:
Schrempp is the longest-running disaster in the automotive business, a runaway ego that has almost single-handedly destroyed what once was a great company [Daimler-Benz and now DaimlerChrysler] and formerly one of the greatest automotive brands -- Mercedes-Benz -- of all time.
His egregious decision to allow Mercedes-Benz to go "down market" in the U.S. [with C-Class models priced around $25,000] was an unmitigated disaster, and he allowed his managers to take their eyes off of the ball, and consequently Mercedes quality plummeted -- eroding the brand immeasurably in this market. And he forced the most talented automotive guy in the business [next to Nissan's Carlos Ghosn] -- Wolfgang Bernhard -- out of the company, because Bernhard bluntly presented a plan to "save" Mercedes from certain doom, and Schrempp didn't like it.
Mercedes then acted on virtually everything Bernhard recommended after he left. Schrempp has made bad decision after bad decision in his quest to cement his legacy as one of the titans in German business lore. Instead, he'll go down in history as one of the most inept automotive leaders of all time. A DaimlerChrysler spokesperson said the company wouldn't comment.
On Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of French carmaker Renault as well as Nissan, which is controlled by Renault:
Ghosn did wonders at Nissan by making the tough calls on costs, but most important, he focused the entire organization on product, which has paid off handsomely. The product is, was, and always will be King in the auto industry. And Ghosn understands this religiously. His dual role heading Nissan/Renault will prove to be too much for one man, however.
On some of the big brands: Ford: Still a great brand. Our Autoextremist Research has found that Ford resonates with knowledgeable consumers more than any other American car brand. The company is currently starved of new products, but it has a shot at thriving in the U.S. market if they play their cards right.
Chevy: Speaking of product-starved, Chevy has suffered from years of neglect within the GM system. But Chevy now has new, competitive products in-market or coming -- the new Corvette, the HHR crossover -- and I'm bullish on their chances.
Toyota: The "Juggernaut." Toyota (TM ) has raised building quality cars to an art form. They have an uncanny knack for nailing market segments right out of the box, and it has managed to convince millions of Americans that the rolling equivalent of automotive vanilla is preferable to just about any other cars and trucks out there, becoming, in effect America's car company.
On top of all of that, they've even managed to redefine the luxury and near-luxury segments with Lexus, turned the entry-level market segment upside down in their spare time with Scion, and brainwashed everyone who will listen that Toyota is the only car company in the world capable of building hybrids.
I don't begrudge the success they have had at all. Toyota is focused. It's an unbelievably consistent company, and it's relentless in identifying what people want. Toyota executes almost flawlessly, and they simply do things better than just about everyone else in the business.
I happen to equate 99% of its products to motorized pabulum, but apparently anesthetized transportation rings true for a lot of people in this country. So be it.
By David Kiley in New York