Who Wants To be The Car Czar?

The auto bailout, in whatever form it takes, is going to require a car czar. That person will supervise the restructuring of the companies, bring the stakeholders together to make sacrifices, and then oversee the companies as they adhere to a set of guidelines. Most of all, he or she will assess on an ongoing basis, whether the companies are behaving, hitting benchmarks and on the road to paying back the tax-payers.

The name that keeps popping up this week is lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, whose recent claim to fame is as administrator of the 9-11 Victim’s Compensation Fund. Feinberg has other credits to his resume, too: he has negotiates settlements to Holocaust victims, victims of agent orange and asbestos, as well as the families of the Virginia Tech shootings.

Feinberg is one of those guys, like lawyer Bob Bennett, who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle for being a straight shooter and an extremely honorable broker.

But I can’t help it that I’m not too psyched up about the prospect.

I cover these companies week in and week out. The job of overseeing the workout of the Detroit-Three operating with tax-payer money, it seems to me, requires a manager whose experience is in…business workouts and politics. The person is going to have to not only have a good eye and vision for what the companies are doing, but also be able to navigate the political realm.

Here are a few candidates of my own if anyone is reading:

I will credit my partner David Welch for the first one: Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Pluses: He was a successful CEO of Alcoa; He is on the board of auto supplier TRW, Inc.; Served two unhappy years on General Motors board—he left in disgust; He is the former Treasury Secretary under Bush and proved to be his own man by disagreeing with Bush and Dick Cheney on tax policy and other issues. Minuses: A frequent critic of Bush, he wouldn’t get appointed.

Chuck Hagel: The soon-to-be-former Senator was co-founder of Vanguard Cellular, which made him a multi-millionaire. He knows how businesses work. He’s tough, and would navigate the politics of the issue. He also would have a hard time getting appointed by a Bush Administration he has frequently criticized. But Obama could name him.

This is my own long-shot never-gonna-happen candidate—Bob Nardelli. Yes, Nardelli is CEO of Chrysler. But if the game-plan was to let GM acquire Chrysler, and Nardelli’s financial interest in the outcome was ended, I actually think he would make a good candidate. Having been at Chrysler for about 18 months, and helped pre-negotiate a merger deal with GM, Nardelli is intimately familiar with what ails these companies. He was an outsider when he arrived, from Home Depot and GE. Privately, he has been hyper critical of the way Detroit was run when he arrived. He has been combing the hallways for waste, and has found a lot of it as he has prepared the company for a strip or flip. He probably can’t separate his interests in time.

Mitt Romney: I mention him here only because the mainstream media, which knows very little about the auto industry, has floated his name. At Bain Capital, Romney worked on some start-ups and turnarounds. He is also credited with getting the Salt Lake City Olympics out of debt. He has advocated Chapter 11 for the automakers, which shows he knows little about consumer businesses. But he at least has “workout” and executive credentials. I don’t care that his father helped turnaround American Motors. That’s ancient history.

Jack Welch: Another candidate floated by the mainstream media, which loves Welch. But Welch, a Businessweek columnist, would be a poor choice. He has little tolerance for Washington, and I doubt he would want to take on such a big project that would put him back in a hands-on management job. The car czar is going to have a lot of heavy lifting, and a big staff to manage. I don’t think Welch is interested in signing on for that.

Democrats are apparently pushing the name of former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, who is also an Obama adviser. Volcker commands enormous respect, and would not take any guff or excuses from automakers, I believe. He would also, I suspect, put together a staff of competent managers, bankers and labor experts to assemble the concessions needed to make the process work. Indeed, Volcker is perhaps the best guy in the field to pull the bond holders to the table, and hold their feet to the fire. It would be tough for the debt holders to steam-roll Volcker.

Why does it have to be a man? It certainly doesn’t. Unfortunately, the only two women who seem ever to be mentioned in these circles is former ebay.com CEO Meg Whitman and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina.

Forget Fiorina, who has the wrong temperament for such a job. Whitman could be an interesting choice, though. Here’s why: Back in 1976, the U.S. Government took over failed railroads and formed Conrail. Edward Jordan, 18 months or so before being named CEO had been put in charge of the U.S. Railways Association. Jordan, a former Ford and Procter & gamble exec, knew nothing about railroads. When he arrived, though, he said he could see the secret to success was in eliminating layers of management and getting his own hands on the problem—fixing track, replacing trains and focusing on the customer. Someone like Whitman would not be managing the car companies, but her lack of knowledge about the auto business, other than what she learned about ebay autos, could be an effective check against back-sliding by the three companies.

Running car companies is not easy, not is it for the faint-of-heart. Just ask the blokes at Tesla who can’t get their one car off the ground on any kind of scale. They seem to have bitten off more than they can chew, and have turned to seasoned auto industry ands to try and channel their “reinvention of the car” into something that could actually work as a business model.

Whoever the car czar is, he or she is going to have to be a tough teacher. The industry, especially GM, needs tough love right now if its going to succeed. And as a tax-payer, I can also say…I’m going to want my money back. And I actually have more faith that I will see it from Detroit than from AIG or CITI.