retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Ordinarily, there would be nothing interesting to say about a car cutting me off in Washington, DC, traffic. Heck, it would be an occasion if someone didn’t try. Yet this time was different.

The red car that bolted in front of me was a model I had never seen before - the Tesla. In that second the future had arrived and the driver didn’t even bother with a courtesy wave to apologize.

Now I’m no expert on cars and I have no idea if the Tesla has a prayer of making it. But motivated by my near accident on K Street I decided to do some digging and found some managerial attitudes that are worth sharing.

The Tesla is Silicon Valley’s attempt to get into the car business. The electric powered vehicle is the first to use lithium-ion batteries that give it a range of more than 200 miles. Oh, and it carries a price tag well above $50,000. Even glaring at it from behind I could see the touches of an unusual luxury car. In other words, this is no Prius, and I drive a Prius.

There were two comments I found about the Tesla that spoke to business realities - and again, these are realities whether or not the car actually succeeds. The first came in 2007 from Robert Lutz, then chairman of General Motors, when the Tesla was first introduced. Lutz told The New Yorker:

"All the geniuses here at General Motors kept saying lithium-ion technology is 10 years away, and Toyota agreed with us - and boom, along comes Tesla. So I said, 'How come some tiny little California startup, run by guys who know nothing about the car business, can do this, and we can't?' That was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam."

The crowbar got Lutz behind the development of the Chevy Volt - another car with an uncertain future. The story nonetheless is clear: all the experts said something was impossible, until it was done. And the worldwide leaders in automotive engineering were caught by surprise.

GM hasn’t exactly torn up the world since 2007, but based on an article in the Washington Post this weekend, the company is still trying to figure out the future. And yes, the Tesla remains the catalyst.

Dan Akerson, GM’s current CEO, sees the Tesla as having the potential to disrupt the entire world of car making. So Akerson has assigned a special team to yet again study the Tesla.

It would be easy to crack a smile at that last sentence. After all, GM, Ford and Chrysler have written the textbook on how to miss trends. I’m old enough to remember a time when American cars dominated. That was before the domestic automakers ignored threats that grew into market dominance for Toyota, Lexus, Nissan, Mazda and…well, the list gets quite long. Ignoring disruptors of change seems like a great motto for the American car industry.

However, Akerson deserves kudos for daring to tackle the uncertain, knowing that only six years ago his company’s leadership said all the right things yet clearly failed to solve the problem. Lutz may have done everything right, but the culture of GM defeated him. Or maybe he did everything wrong and Akerson is a fool for trying again.

At least he’s trying.

Disruptors always look strange until they work. In just the past few weeks there have been reports on how phone companies are abandoning copper wire, which once was the only way phone lines were offered. Today, they are an expensive anachronism. Likewise, Microsoft, once the company that simply couldn’t be stopped, had to announce negative financial results for yet another failed attempt at getting ahead of the tech world.

There was a time many thought Walmart couldn’t sell food just as there was no doubt a time when supermarkets seemed like a silly idea. And that’s why today we still need to understand Amazon and Aldi and whoever else comes along. We don’t know today what product is the next Greek yogurt, or what retailer is the next Whole Foods. The future doesn’t provide clues.

“Things are only impossible until they are not,” is the great line from Star Trek that we love using here at MNB. We love it because it keeps getting proven correct.

So, what do you think is impossible today and what are you doing about it?

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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