Like its creators, old GM passes quietly

March 5, 1929: A teacher at the Detroit School of Trades dies of colon cancer at the age of 74.
March 18, 1947: A former bowling alley manager dies in New York City at the age of 85.
December 15, 2011: What was once not just America’s largest company, but the world’s largest company, is dissolved at 103.

All passed quietly, little noticed by the world.

On Thursday, December 15, 2011, Motors Liquidation Co. was formally dissolved. Yesterday, attorneys filed papers with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York certifying that the company was no more.

Until 2009, Motors Liquidation Co. was known as General Motors Corporation. When the automaker went through a government-assisted bankruptcy, the new General Motors Company emerged with the most valuable assets. What was left became Motors Liquidation Company, charged with disposing of the shuttered plants and used equipment to satisfy the claims of creditors. With the liquidation of Motors Liquidation, the remaining assets will go to four trusts set up as part of the original bankruptcy plan.

There was no press release from Motors Liquidation or its offspring, the “new” GM, which is busy celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet. The only mention was David Shepardson’s article in the Detroit News. In his article, Shepardson reports that Tim Yost, a spokesman for Motors Liquidation, told him that his was the only inquiry.

It’s somehow fitting that the old GM should go out this way, broke and in obscurity; that’s how the two men most responsible for the formation of the company shuffled off this mortal coil.

David Dunbar Buick was an inventor who made his first fortune with a method of bonding vitreous enamel to iron that’s still in use today. He got interested in the internal combustion engine and began building his own. Buick developed the first overhead-valve engine, a major improvement over the side-valve engines used by others, and set up shop to sell engines. He also built a car and set up two different car companies. Buick was a gifted inventor but no financial wizard: he and repeatedly ran into trouble, running first through his own funds and then money he had borrowed.

Enter William Crapo (pronounced “Cray-po”) Durant, a successful carriage builder from Flint, Michigan. Durant bought into the company, took it over, forced Buick out, and used the car company as the first building block in the creation of General Motors. Durant was a brilliant dealmaker and marketer, but like David Buick, had a weakness: he was a poor manager. One of the reasons Walter P. Chrysler left an enormous salary at GM was the fact he couldn’t get along with Durant. Durant was chucked out of the top spot at GM twice. The first time, he created Chevrolet and made so much money, he bought control of GM. The second time, GM’s board made it stick.

Buick’s bad luck with money continued: his investments went south and an attempt to create another car came to naught. He ended his career as the Detroit School of Trades making so little, he couldn’t even afford a telephone.

Durant made and lost fortunes that today would be measured in the hundreds of millions. His knack for coming up roses deserted him the Great Depression and his last venture was a bowling alley. Friends from GM, like Alfred P. Sloan and Charles Mott, helped support Durant in the last years of his life.

Though total labor cost was a factor, GM’s demise wasn’t brought about by union wages: it was the result of years of poor management. Of pursuing profits while neglecting the source of those profits. The company that once commanded half of the U.S. light vehicle market and created the 1965 Chevy Impala, the only car model to hit a million sales in a single year, was reduced to a market share of less than 20 percent in 2009, the year it filed for bankruptcy and it took all Chevrolet car and truck models combined to reach 1.2 million sales, a number that could no longer pay the bills or postpone the end.

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