GM, Business, and The Age of Small

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At its peak, General Motors employed 350,000 people and operated 150 assembly plants. It defined “big business” for America and the world.

But GM was not always big. It grew through the acquisitions that it made in the early decades of the twentieth century. In those days, the automotive industry was populated by entrepreneurial small businesses led by people like Ransom Olds and Henry Ford. There were more than 200 automobile companies in the United States in 1920. By 1940, only 17 had survived.

As with all businesses, success and failure was measured by a company’s ability to manage and adapt to change. Change in consumer expectations and demographics. Demands for lower prices and more features. Underlying all of this was the need to constantly improve, to challenge core assumptions, and attend to customer needs. The early automobile companies that could not adapt were driven out of business or forced to merge. In the end, we had the “Big Three” in control of all major American automotive brands.

And so it was, but only for a time. Our economy is dynamic. It is always changing. This is why consumer products are always adding “new and improved” to even their most popular and profitable labels, and why companies produce competing products — like laundry detergents and cereals — within their brand. Control of shelf space is vital in retail, and an expanded offering of products maintains a company's all-important market share.

In a free economy, “Big” has some advantages. It has more resources and reach. “Big” companies can define a market and, to a point, control entry into it. But “Big” also has many disadvantages. It is unwieldy, bureaucratic, inflexible, slow to react and unresponsive to small events. This is why in a dynamic free economy “Big” gives birth to “Small”, which forces innovation and change, and ushers in the next Big Idea.

Apple was started in a garage to challenge the giant IBM. Microsoft was founded by a college dropout who ran with a platform (Windows) that Xerox created and discarded. Hechinger’s was the first big box hardware store. It was overtaken by The Home Depot, which pioneered a better way to service clients with an even bigger box.

America is all about good, better, best. Google is now the dominate internet search engine. A small part of its success has been its ability to become part of the vernacular. How many of us have said, “Let me Google that?” Microsoft is not sitting back and accepting Google’s success as a given. It recently launched “Bing”, with features not available on Google. Is Bing the next newer, better search engine? The market will determine if it is, once consumers take it out for a search or two and decide whether or not they like the results.

The American automobile industry has reached the end of “Big.” GM recently sold its Saturn brand to Roger Penske, a former auto racer turned entrepreneur. Penske will likely bring new energy and focus to a brand that was only a small cog in a giant corporation. I bet that the brand will reemerge stronger in the marketplace. A Chinese company bought Hummer. SAAB is still looking for a new home. The remaining GM brands, including Cadillac and Buick, will be part of a newer and smaller company. This is the natural economic cycle. It is what would have taken place months ago, and saved the American taxpayer billions of dollars had we simply let GM go into an orderly Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The problem is that our federal government is attempting to control this process in order to achieve a desired result. Yes, looking at saving GM as a short term federal jobs program is a valid argument (albeit a God-awful expensive one). But we should not let these actions, taken in the midst of a crisis, instill the belief that government control of markets is a viable alternative to free markets that respond to consumer demand.

The natural flow of our economy is big to small to big again. We are now entering an 'Age of Small' throughout our economy. It is an era in which new ideas will drive innovation, and the nimble will overtake the weak. The only thing that can derail this process is the permanent entry of big government into the mix.

Government is the antithesis of a market economy. It is unwieldy, bureaucratic, inflexible, slow to react, and unresponsive to small events and to its own consumers.

It is Big when we are at the right moment for Small.

Dennis M. Powell is president and CEO of Massey Powell, an issues management consulting company located in Plymouth Meeting, PA.