IT IS HARD to plan a global future when the automobile business is mostly about the here and now.
Top executives who have tried to organize their companies globally or lead a major push into new markets eventually meet internal resistance. Lou Hughes of General Motors is the latest.
Carl Hahn thrust Volkswagen into Spain, China, Czechoslovakia, Mexico and South America in the 1980s. His strategy was discredited when the 1991 recession came along. But today Ferdinand Piech's VW is well-positioned around the world.
Renault's first and only international foothold was American Motors in the USA. But when things got tough at home, Renault made a stupidly short-sighted retreat.
Alex Trotman's Ford 2000 is slow, hard going. In Europe, emergency cost-cuts were necessary because Ford couldn't wait for savings that the grand global plan is supposed to deliver. But any temptation to shut down Ford 2000 ought to be resisted.
Chrysler's renaissance may have been helped by the fact that it did not have the size to match Ford's and GM's global reach. There were fewer foreign distractions and more focus.
Lou Hughes has been the auto industry's most persistent internationalist in the past three years. General Motors is investing $2.5 billion to build five Opel plants around the world.
But GM Europe has suffered in the meantime. Market share has fallen, quality has slipped, the new Astra has been delayed and German engineering resources have been strained to meet overseas responsibilities. GM lost $21 million in Europe in the third quarter. Now Hughes' leadership is coming into question.
The auto business is so competitive that concentrating on the future can get you pummeled in the present.
But the world's largest industrial company, sitting on a $21 billion cash pile, should be able to build several plants around the world at one time without falling to pieces in Europe. If it can't, then something is wrong and Hughes must accept his share of the blame. Making Opel Chairman David Herman the scapegoat is wrong.
Still, Herman is expected to leave for another job in GM or another employer. His departure may have less to do with philosophical differences than an old-fashioned clash between two strong personalities.
While Ignacio Lopez was at Volkswagen, Herman and Hughes were united by a common foe. Almost from the day Lopez left last December, rumors of friction between the two GM men surfaced.
The tragedy is that there must be a loser. General Motors needs Dave Herman, the quintessential international auto executive. He is the kind of multi-lingual, multi-faceted manager who will lead the industry in the 21st century.
Herman may go, but Hughes is losing the public relations battle. Leaks from inside the company have been surprisingly one-sided. Where are the Lou Hughes supporters? Why aren't they being heard?
Hughes doesn't appear to inspire the same loyalty as his boss, Jack Smith. He can be prickly and critical in his relationships.
A few years ago, GM Europe was the Holy Land of the corporation. Jack Smith, Bob Eaton, Rick Wagoner, Hughes, Herman, Don Sullivan, Bob Hendry of Saab, John Smith of Cadillac and Inaki Lopez all spent quality time in the little office building on Zurich's Stelzenstrasse.
Now, sadly, GM Europe has fallen to earth. But the corporation should not react to its short-term problems by reversing course in the new markets of the world.