Caught in the Daimler-Chrysler Divorce
Today, May 7, is the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the engagement that would lead to a wedding, and ultimately divorce in one of the worst corporate marriages in history.
At the time, I was the Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent for CNN, so this was a big story for me to cover. I had no idea that nine years later I would be caught in the middle of the stormy split as a DaimlerChrysler employee. Indeed, disastrous corporate tieups seem to follow me.
The first was the 2001 merger of CNN parent company Time Warner with AOL. The result was laying off about a thousand CNN employees and shutting down bureaus. That’s how I lost my job there after 20 years of service.
I found my way to the print world, first as national auto reporter for the Associated Press, then General Motors beat writer for the Detroit News. Three years into that stint, I got a call that the head of PR for the Chrysler half of DaimlerChrysler was looking to start a media-oriented blog and wanted an auto writer to ghost write and manage it. Sold. Cool job. That job later was broadened to heading the company’s digital communications team, which included broadcast and social media.
Fast forward to October, 2006. Plans were being made for DaimlerChrysler’s annual global news conference. This was always held at the company’s Stuttgart, Germany headquarters, but they were going to “trust” us to pull it off at Chrysler Group HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Two members of the Daimler PR staff flew over to meet with us to start the communications planning. We knew things were off to a bad start when we were told the date chosen was Feb. 14, 2007 and that all communications with the media would be by fax. One of the announcements planned included plant closings and layoffs. We warned our German counterparts such an announcement on Feb. 14th would lead to headlines blaring, “Valentine’s Day Massacre!” They were unmoved. We also explained no one used fax machines anymore, but they remained steadfast insisting that’s how they did it in Germany. We suggested the use of fax machines was effective in guaranteeing no one would show up. Tough scheiss.
Planning went along and on the appointed day I showed up at 4 a.m. to help direct the broadcast satellite and microwave trucks where to park and to help the crews set up. The first truck had barely arrived when I got a call from a reporter who could barely contain himself as he asked, “Hey! What’s going on. German publication Handelsblatt just reported they’re gonna announce they’re selling you guys off. Comment?” I was totally blindsided. We had heard not a word. I called my boss who at first stammered then promised some sort of statement shortly. It was not shortly. By then my phone was ringing off the hook asking about the Handlesblatt report. When I finally received the statement it was a non-committal corporate collection of words that didn’t completely spill the beans, but didn’t deny the reports. Things quickly got out of control. Now we had two disasters. An impending announcement of plant closings and layoff AND, with regard to the possible offloading of Chrysler, in the eventual words of DCX Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche, “all options are open.” Easily decipherable code for, “we’re ditching the Americans. Divorce is in the air.” Yes, it was a Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Ironically, only a few weeks prior, the company decided we Americans should learn to speak German and contracted with a local outfit to hold classes in our offices. After being told the marriage was headed for splittsville we all declared, “aufwiedersehen!” to the classes. When the poor teacher showed up to find an empty room, one of us gently informed him of the news and our last German lesson was how to say “that sucks.”
Truthfully, we were relieved knowing within some period of time we’d be out from under the thumbs of the German management, but would miss many of our German colleagues who became good friends. We had no idea our new owners, Cerberus, would be an even bigger disaster.