USA Today, December 11, 2000


Books Explore Chrysler Then, and Now

Now that the former Chrysler, the North American arm of DaimlerChrysler, is on the ropes for the third time in barely more than 20 years, two recent books likely will benefit from the headlines.

The book that best addresses Chrysler's current swamp is Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off with Chrysler by Detroit News auto writers Bill Vlasic and Bradley A. Stertz. The book chronicles, in insider detail, the months up to and after the acquisition of Chrysler. The second book tells the life of its founder. Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius may be less timely, but it offers the first in-depth biography of a man rarely remembered on the same short list of auto titans as Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan and William Durant.

The 1998 acquisition of Chrysler was billed by Daimler-Benz chief Juergen Schrempp and Chrysler chief Robert Eaton as "a merger of equals." But long before a now-famous interview Schrempp did last month with the Financial Times of London, in which he acknowledged that the "merger of equals" rhetoric was empty talk, readers of Taken for a Ride knew that Schrempp never intended to make Eaton or any Chrysler executive part of his inner circle.

Chrysler was just one transaction among several that Schrempp has plotted to make Daimler a global colossus. Daimler's dented trophies also include South Korea's financially spotty Hyundai and Japan's scandal-ridden Mitsubishi.

Indeed, there is a stampede of lawyers poring over the reporters' account of how the chess-playing, cigar-chomping Schrempp snookered Eaton--portrayed as an emotional but competent Midwestern hayseed.

Two years later, mismanagement has wiped out the market value of the former Chrysler at the time of the transaction and has started to eat into the value of Daimler.

Considering that some of the biggest shareholders, such as billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, are suing Daimler and calling for Schrempp's scalp, while Eaton sits comfortably in retirement on his booty from the deal, the "hayseed" looks more Churchillian than Chamberlain esque every day.

Schrempp is portrayed as a skillful, ruthless, cavorting executive. One story, confirmed by multiple sources, puts Schrempp in Seville, Spain, with his lieutenants after closing the Chrysler deal, leaving the gathering in the wee hours after singing Bye, Bye Miss American Pie with assistant Lydia Deininger over his shoulder. Schrempp's marriage to Deininger last week has finally quieted whispers of inappropriate corporate behavior.

The premise of the book is what Kerkorian and other litigants charge: Daimler's intent all along was to make Chrysler just its North American division. Several Chrysler executives are quoted in the book as saying it was never anything but an acquisition. The "merger of equals" talk was to save face in Detroit and sell the auto union on the deal.

Angry shareholders are using Schrempp's brazen comments to the Financial Times to back up fraud charges, but this book has more fodder than one news article.

Vlasic and Stertz did a solid job of reporting the book, gaining access to virtually all the players, as well as observers in the box seats. Their re-creation of events and character portrayals are thorough, literate and entertaining. And they make what could have been mind-numbing blather about the company financials readable and useful.

Given Chrysler's bleak present and uncertain future, the authors' follow-up might be titled How Daimler-Benz Drove Off the Road with Chrysler.

For a look at how the company came to be in the first place, there is really only one place to go: Vincent Curcio's Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius.

The book is a bit off-putting at first, an intimidating doorstop of a biography. And the beginning is a little frightening in its detail, going into nothing less than the geological history of western Kansas, where Walter Chrysler was born.

But Curcio benefited from the cooperation of both the company and Chrysler family records, and it shows.

The life of Chrysler is set against and is an integral part of the nation's industrial revolution. Those who still skin their knuckles removing carburetors and overhauling engines under a shade tree on Saturday afternoons will revel in the rise of a good mechanic who built and ran an American classic.

Chrysler, Curcio frequently points out, was ready to take responsibility for mistakes and initiative for solutions. After the failure of the Airflow, a 1930s design now considered ahead of its time, Chrysler is quoted as telling underlings looking for silver linings, "It's nice of you to make excuses, but I'm the captain of this ship, and it's my fault. But let's not sit around making excuses. Let's forget it. Let's go on and get back on track."

Maybe Chrysler could afford to lead so boldly, plainly and simply because his name was on the building and he was an industry giant. But in a world of disposable chief executives, enslavement of management to Wall Street and the disappearance of so many great American companies, a trip down memory lane, even if sometimes more than we need to know, is a welcome antidote to the lack of greatness we find in corporate and political leaders today. Given that Chrysler was perhaps the greatest turnaround artist of his day, it's fun to speculate on how he might handle the company's problems today.

Close this window.