by Lido “Lee” Iacocca with William Novak, published 1986
What would the world of Big Business look like if it was owned and controlled by rational, intelligent capital allocators?
Before we try answering that question by reviewing a major episode in the business career of Lee Iacocca, let’s take a step back and talk a little bit about that man’s history before he arrived on the stage at that moment.
Iacocca was born to Italian immigrants in the early 1920’s. He lived through the Great Depression as a child and had the good fortune to develop a case of rheumatic fever in his adolescence. In that era, rheumatic fever could be and often was fatal, and frequently led to chronic health problems even after the infection was beat. He was lucky to get it because it resulted in him receiving a medical deferral during WW2. Instead of being blown up over some city in Germany like many of his peers, he worked hard on his studies in high school and college and had the benefit of such small class sizes during his industrial engineering classes at Lehigh University that he practically received a private tutorial for most of his four years.
After graduating from Lehigh, he got an offer to join the Ford Motor Company as one of 50 hand-picked students, but decided to pursue a masters at Princeton after receiving a fellowship. His luck continued when he got invited back to the company upon completing his studies despite the company forgetting it had promised to hold his spot two years earlier and then decided to hire him again anyway even though all the spots were filled.
Despite being hired on as an engineer, Iacocca quickly grew bored with his duties and petitioned for a role in field sales, which he was granted. His big break in the company came a few years later, not due to his engineering prowess but because of a slick local marketing campaign, “56 for ’56”, which was soon adopted nationally and to which the company attributed a big boost in sales. He was promoted incessantly, all the way up to president of the company in 1970, on the heels of a string of other successful promotions including the introduction of the Ford Mustang, Pinto, Escort and Fiesta, the Lincoln Continental Mark III and the revival of the Mercury brand and Cougar car.
If you’re reading this review anytime after 2017 when it was first published, you’re a bit puzzled at this point and don’t understand why you should be impressed with Iacocca. That’s because you have the benefit of hindsight and know how the story ends for these particular product lines and for the American auto industry in general. You also can’t appreciate how stupid sales and finance gimmicks like “56 for ’56” could not only meaningfully move the needle in a massive company’s sales, but could be placed like a laurel wreath on the head of one young man and allow him to propel himself up the ladder all the way to the company presidency. All I can say is it was a different time and America was a different place, and all the horrible stereotypes of the simplicity and innocence of the era seem, sadly, to have been true.
There’s one more bit of the story worth mentioning before we try answering our question. In being nationally-recognized initially, Iacocca was in practice being recognized by Henry Ford II himself, and it was Henry Ford II’s favoritism which allowed him to keep ascending the ranks. Later, like all good auto manufacturers seemingly must do when they find a talented executive with a string of successes accumulating (see the Hyundai/Krafcik saga most recently), Iacocca ended up on Ford’s shitlist and after carrying out a secretive investigation and waging a war of company politics against him for three years aimed at getting him to resign, he finally fired him in 1978.
Rather than being incredibly thankful for the amazing luck he’d had so far in his life and the astounding speed with which he had climbed the corporate ladder due to this initial favoritism, Iacocca developed major sour grapes. His heart filled with hate and disgust and he let Ford’s personal failings as a man become his own. He couldn’t give up and move on with his life and instead signed on to be president of Chrysler, Ford’s 2nd tier competitor, in what he thought would be a major “fuck you!” to Hank the Deuce. Now, here is where the story gets interesting and how we might attempt to answer the question first posed by demonstrating the disaster that is the present state of affairs.
In a chapter called “The Shah Leaves Town”, Iacocca the newly appointed president of Chrysler finds himself in a seeming perfect storm. Already in trouble because of a dysfunctional, hyper-decentralized operating structure, non-existent enterprise-level financial controls, last place product quality, poor sales volume, a debt-heavy balance sheet and out of control expense structure, Chrysler meets the same shocking set of macro events that every other major global auto manufacturer had to contend with at the time period, as well as the US economy in general– the Shah of Iran is deposed, the price of gasoline skyrockets and a terrible recession takes ahold of the US economy.
In response to these circumstances which are truly beyond Chrysler’s control, Iacocca concludes he is forced to:
- slash major product R&D expenses, further exacerbating their low product quality
- layoff thousands of plant employees and sales and administrative staff
- sell off foreign divisions of the company that are deeply in the red
- sell off the company’s valuable franchise real estate at fire sale prices (and later repurchase it at multiples of said prices)
- sell off some of the company’s only profitable, “evergreen” divisions, such as its US military tank supplier, because “Chrysler was in the business of selling cars and trucks, not tanks” despite C&T losing millions annually and tanks being guaranteed a $50 million profit annually by the Department of Defense
- ultimately, going hat in hand to the government begging for $1 billion in loan guarantees to avoid a Chapter 11 bankruptcy based on some whiny logic about “Free enterprise and survival of the fittest, except when my cock is on the chopping block” (paraphrasing)
The chapter is truly astounding in that it reads like a tell-all of a manager’s total incompetence in the face of adversity, doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons and still having the nerve to blame bad luck and the government as if the crisis was created in one day and not over a long period of time beforehand. Truly, considering the amazing string of good fortune that Iacocca had over his previous thirty year career with Ford and the jarring inability to think creatively when faced with a headwind, it begs a lot of questions about what of the success he and Ford experienced during his earlier tenure was due to their own genius versus random happenstance.
And it certainly begs a lot of questions about what the hell Chrysler’s board of directors was doing in the decades leading up to these freak events, while the company’s competitive position was eroding, its organization degrading and its risk growing to the point that a devastating calamity was all but inevitable.
That is what is so regretfully consistent about the way these episodes are depicted in books and in the press, whether we’re talking about the fate of one rundown company like Chrysler or the “sudden” onslaught of a national financial panic, like in 2008. To hear the people in charge tell the story, no one could’ve seen it coming and it was all someone else’s fault and due to a unique sequence of shocks that unfortunately all happened at once.
For people with no principles and no real understanding of complex events, such as major corporate failures requiring bailouts/government guarantees, or business cycle busts, these things are always surprising in magnitude and mystical in nature. But for people who read and think deeply about them and can trace the interplay of multiple phenomena over a long time series, another picture develops. Here, we can see that luck has little to do with what results beyond simply tipping over something that was already unbalanced. And actually, it is a series of poor decisions, often made in utter ignorance of what it is that is being decided for or against in each episode, that logically coalesce into a disaster masterpiece as fragility grows with the increasingly complexity of time.
If Iacocca was anything, he was a decent, hard-working salesman and marketer, a promoter, especially of himself. But he knew nothing of risk and how to manage it and gave little thought to managing a sound capital structure and the way all the operational pieces of the puzzle contributed to it, or didn’t– that’s probably why he was always referring to the accountants in the book as “bean counters.” This diminutive phrase for the people whose jobs are to provide an accurate state of the company’s financial health and system and thus allow rational capital allocation to take place in full light of the organization’s risks really tells you all you need to know about why things turned out as they did for Chrysler.
Although Iacocca can’t be blamed entirely for the mess he inherited at Chrysler, his response and strategy for fixing it certainly gives us a place to start in thinking about what not to do when master of a universe like this, and thus how a rational allocator of capital might do differently.
In the first place, a rational capital allocator would not rest on his laurels and allow good times, and especially boom times, to delude himself into thinking that all was well and no drastic improvements could be made in the business’s operations. In fact, this seems like the best time to consider making such decisions, because the company operates from a position of strength and thus will feel, and actually have, the maximum of alternative choices to make. A rational capital allocator would want to avoid at all costs finding themselves in a position where they are trying to decide which assets to dispose of, for example, while the clock is ticking on a debt bomb.
Second, a rational capital allocator would never fool themselves into thinking that the circumstances witnessed today were the consequence of recent events or decisions. Rather, he would look to the past, and further into the past the more complex and the larger in scale the operation in question is, for clues as to where the actual problem originates and therefore what the proper remedy might be.
Third, when faced with a crisis, a rational capital allocator would not rally around emotional identities such as “We’re a car and truck company at heart” but would instead contend with the logic of where profitability lies– if the only division making money is tanks, then it turns out you are in fact a “tank company”, in which case you better make haste in selling off and disposing of all non-tank related divisions, such as cars and trucks. The sub-section to the third point is that before it even got that bad, a rational capital allocator would’ve been asking questions like, “What does making tanks have to do with making cars and trucks, besides freak accidents of history?” and with no reasonable answer to be found, he would’ve worked to separate the capital and reporting structures of these activities long before the crisis struck.
Fourth, the rational capital allocator would realize that debt holders stand in direct opposition to equity holders and could easily set them aside given the right circumstances, and so he would be extremely hesitant to use debt in his capital structure, if at all. He’d also be a bit more eager to pile up cash rather than use it on silly, ego-driven things like acquiring an empire of assets in foreign markets just to be able to make the claim that he is operating a “globally diversified operation.”
Fifth, a rational capital allocator would try to qualify and quantify the major predictable threats to his model and not only manage his operations to them, but have anticipated his own response were such risks to actually manifest themselves. For example, if you run a major auto manufacturing enterprise, some big risks you might keep on the radar would be gas prices (affecting your demand), labor and steel prices (affecting your cost of production) and major geopolitical instability which might impact those primary risks (such as a major oil exporting country becoming politically unstable). Regime change is pretty frequent throughout history, and it’s not like there were no signs the Shah was unpopular in Iran prior to his departure. It should’ve been conceivable to major decision-makers like Iacocca that such events could take place and would have a negative impact on his operations.