Editor's Note: These two previously unpublished Klingler "Diary" entries were received after we discovered the author was hoaxing us. This is the first time we have posted them. For the two entries we did publish, click here; for an explanation of how Slate got duped, click here.
I arrived in Europe Tuesday morning after one of the overnight flights that are becoming a biweekly feature of my life. I'd tell you where in Europe, but then my legal department—which made me jump through several hoops before I could write this "Diary" in the first place—would get testy. Testy legal departments are second only to testy auditors in terms of phenomena I try to avoid. Would that Enron's executives had shared my fear of laywers and accountants. (Irrelevant anecdote No. 1: Jeff Skilling offered me my first job out of business school, when he worked at McKinsey. I didn't take it, not out of any bizarre prescience, but because I didn't want to live in Houston.)
I arrived at the airport at 7ish this morning and was at my first meeting by 7:45. For all the jokes I've heard about the European work ethic—countries shutting down for the month of August, 35-hour workweeks, legal bans on overtime—I've found only small differences in basic workplace mores between the United States and other countries I work in regularly. After a brief presentation at a conference here and a brief chat with some "VIP" customers—shorthand for longtime owners, big fleet buyers, or otherwise prominent folk—I'm off to a meeting at the other end of a brief flight.
It's a subcommittee of our management council, and there are lots of these subcommittees. As boards go, European practices are dramatically different from those in the United States. For one thing, we're legally required to have "worker representatives" (their term, not mine) at senior meetings. Various boards and sub-boards also have government representatives, community advocates, and various other constituencies who wouldn't necessarily get past security at most U.S. companies. The liberal Democrat-voting egalitarian in me likes this, but about half the time, we seem collaboration-challenged and obsessed with process.
With half a dozen competing agendas and lots of sloganeering, we seldom spend more than a third of the meeting on discussion, with the other two-thirds consisting of prepared statements, à la our very own congressional hearings. I can't recap this morning's meeting for confidentiality reasons, but here's an example of how our meetings go. At a previous meeting, an outside representative who shall remain unnamed read an entire seven-page statement (our ground rules prohibit interrupting or questioning outside reps, although not anyone else). The thrust of his argument was that August holidays shouldn't count against vacation time, since our employees wouldn't get much done if they worked during August, since employees at other companies use their vacation time during August. While pleasingly elegant on its surface, the proposal would effectively double the amount of paid time off that our European employees received, to about 11 weeks a year counting everything. Fortunately we voted that one down within the meeting, rather than tabling it for broader discussion—the path of least resistance that we occasionally follow.
Then to another meeting for a review of consumer research. Quite a few of our vehicles were either dramatically or subtly restyled for this and the upcoming model year, and unsurprisingly, the reaction has been either delightfully positive or rabidly negative. Dozens of studies and any number of anecdotes suggest that cars inspire visceral reactions—in many cases even more so even than other possessions (houses, furniture, whatever). Our redesigns inspire particular outpourings of emotion, perhaps because most of our vehicles are either "aspirational" or "status," to use horrible marketing words, and rather expensive to boot.
While today's meeting may seem pointless—automotive redesigns work in multiyear cycles, so next year's models aren't going to look that different—it's actually remarkably helpful. For one thing, it helps us understand who likes and dislikes various bits of our newest cars. This information is incredibly valuable to our dealers, who ultimately have to find the right car for each person who walks into their showroom. It also helps me react to advertising concepts, form a solid competitive strategy, comment intelligently to various constituencies that we work with, ranging from regulators to dealers to customers.
(Irrelevant anecdote No. 2: I regularly get chastised for using the word "car." We make various sorts of vehicles—coupes, sedans, SUVs, whatnot—and one of the accepted words is "vehicle"—there are others as well. But it reminds me of bad cop shows ["Step out of the vehicle, sir"].)
I like to think that our newest redesign appeals to people buying both their fifth and their first car from us. In any case, radical redesigns inevitably look mainstream within a year or two. So we tailor our sales process over the life of the redesign to cater to early adopters when we launch a new design and then progressively to extend to more conservative buyers. One of the simultaneously exciting and risky bits of car redesign is deciding exactly how far out on the edge you want to be. While every car manufacturer loves producing concept cars for auto shows, translating those into mass-production models is always an exercise in balancing moderation and edginess.
Back to my apartment for a late shower, a quick run, and dinner with colleagues. Vegetarians don't do too well here, but I may be able to pull rank and go to the one nearby Thai restaurant. Normally I don't throw my weight around, since most of my colleagues welcome the chance to go to fancy restaurants with me and my expense account. But it's my first real meal of the day, since granola and juice on the plane don't count and neither does the bag of potato chips and bottle of water at lunch. I need my tofu fix.
With all due respect to Slatecolumnists Alexander Chancellor and June Thomas, European newspapers are pathetic. I'm about as multilingual as they come and have lived in a half-dozen countries. Yet I can't find a routine anywhere in the world that beats waking up to the New York Times on my doorstep. I briefly tried having it FedExed to me and later on tried to read it on the Web. But there's a huge difference between staring at a computer screen at 5:30 in the morning and lounging in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee and crisp newsprint. As a result, I subsidize the NYT to the tune of $2,500 a year, for the national edition at the various places I stay. This and other mildly outrageous indulgences entail a certain amount of domestic compromise: I promise to turn a blind eye to my wife's greens fees and monthly golf club purchases.
At any rate, after a perfunctory glance at the International Herald Tribune and the local paper, I plunge back into my circuit of meetings. We are interviewing several candidates for the equivalent of a divisional CFO position this morning, and I had back-to-back 30-minute interviews with four candidates. Each of them has gone through at least 10 interviews already at the firm, and I suspect that interview fatigue may have set in. On the other hand, as I speculate in the shower, the big guns will meet with them today—and perhaps adrenaline will carry them through.
It's extraordinary how different people with seemingly identical credentials are in interviews. These differences make interviews all the more important, and I tend to ask rather pointed questions. This has mixed results today. While every candidate is perfectly competent, exceptionally well-educated, and tremendously articulate, only one really stands up to me and challenges my thinking and assumptions. In any sort of senior role, I look for a willingness to raise objections, defend controversial positions with strong analysis, and advocate alternatives. The only woman we met today met those criteria in spades. All the guys were perfectly charming and utterly unthreatening. As I've said in this Diary, finance people should be fiercely independent and thoroughly well informed.
I fill out interview evaluation forms on my way to the airport and participate in a post-interview conference call from the plane. The afternoon has me visiting dealers and a manufacturing plant around the country, before I fly back to the United States in the early evening. One of the nice bits of having a corporate jet is that you can leave and arrive more or less when you want to. So I'll do three 20-minute legs this afternoon and hold four one-hour meetings, and then swap crews for the flight back to the United States.
The dealer meetings wind up being rather a waste of time, since our local company-owned dealerships are deferential in the extreme. Rather than highlight issues that need attention, the local managers are more interested in impressing me. While large buffets are wonderful, I do wonder about the effect of cheese and caffeine on my arteries and general well-being. I resolve to add a few miles to my run first thing tomorrow and to send e-mails to the dealers asking them for blunt feedback.
My last stop is one of our newer plants, one I had a hand in designing. Among my various skills is the ability to resolve manufacturing issues. An odd skill in an English and finance major, but then my ability to yodel is odd as well. I love the energy and the neatness of processes in a manufacturing plant, I love the sense of witnessing objects being tangibly transformed and assembled. The plant I'm visiting today has scheduling problems with the delivery of various components—in general terms, the mix of parts we receive doesn't precisely match the mix of cars we want to produce here. Thirty years ago, this would not have been a problem; we would just have warehoused the extra parts. But in a particularly punitive step toward just-in-time manufacturing, I have greatly reduced warehouse space in virtually all of our new or newly refurbished plants.
Manufacturing cars is a fascinating business. For that matter, manufacturing anything with thousands of parts is fascinating. For the most part, doing it well requires the ability (and the computing power) to construct lots of multivariate equations and then optimize them based on a set of assumptions. Despite not being particularly good at math, and never having worked on a shop floor, and being unable to use a power drill, I seem to have an odd aptitude for mental algebra. In about 15 minutes, we figure out a set of three consecutive (minuscule) bottlenecks that are cumulatively causing the plant all sorts of horrible problems. We adjust the production mix and more importantly the supply mix, and all is well. At least on paper. To the plane, Jeeves!