Corporate America needs a 21st century Dragon Lady

While successful female business leaders have made headlines in recent years — a Mary T. Berra, Virginia M. Romelty, and Indra K. Nooyi all come to mind — just 5.2 percent of CEOs of companies in the S&P 500 are women.

To reduce this imbalance we need a modern incarnation of the Dragon Lady, a protagonist who is surely among the great characters in American literature. Unfortunately, her real significance has become obscured by the passage of time since she starred in Milton Caniff’s comic strip “Terry and The Pirates,” which he set in turbulent China during the 1930s and 1940s and is now regarded as something of a masterpiece.

It began as a standard newspaper comic strip that followed the adventure story traditions of its time. Terry Lee was a plucky adolescent who ran around China under the watchful eyes of his adult mentor, Pat Ryan. Pat was a two-fisted Black Irish soldier of fortune who was assumed to be an appropriate guardian for Terry because he smoked a pipe, talked in terse ambiguities, played football in college and never displayed any discernable sense of humor.

But all these conventions went out the window when the Dragon Lady appeared.

These days, people think of her as the quintessential Asian temptress, luring men to perdition with her irresistible female wiles. Embodying in full-blooded glory all the primal male fears of women, which they have woven into elaborate horror stories to tell each other in locker rooms, sports bars or their equivalent ever since Old Testament times.

Many contemporary women find this stereotype offensive, and rightly so. But it has nothing to do with the remarkable character Caniff created. Unfortunately, newsprint is highly perishable, so few people today can see for themselves what the Dragon Lady was really all about.

Yes, she was awesomely beautiful. But she never let this genetic accident define her character. She paid no attention to the standard male view that a woman’s physical appearance is the most important thing about her.

Yes, she spent most of her life engaged in various illegal activities. But this was more an expression of her clear-eyed pragmatism than evidence of any moral depravity inherent in her female nature. From her perspective, living outside the law gave her more freedom to be herself than she could ever have enjoyed in any of the conventional roles assigned to women. The Dragon Lady had no patience with this.

It is worth mentioning that Terry and Pat were not above reproach either, since they were seeking a lost gold mine that was obviously not their lost gold mine.

She was a brilliant and sophisticated woman, whose Chinese-English ancestry had made her an outcast to both societies. Highly educated in Eastern and Western cultures, she was wise in the ways of the world and the frailties of its people. Most of all, she choose to live entirely by her own existential set of moral principles that gave no quarter to anyone. All of which made her more than a match for Caniff’s irredeemably wicked multiethnic villains.

He introduced her in 1934 as the strong-willed leader of a pirate gang preying up and down the South China coast. This kind of dominating role in command of an all-male crew was scarcely common among female characters in the American literature of the time. But Caniff made it seem like the most natural thing in the world by emphasizing her cool intelligence, emotional toughness, and Wall Street trader’s ability to balance risks and rewards.

The behavior of many members of the masters of the universe club would suggest that they have limited talent. Many organizations are directed by the can-do-no-wrong man of the extended moment who leaves no indelible trace and will be forgotten long before he will be remembered.

You will know women have finally arrived when there are as many incompetent women in the C-Suite as incompetent men. Ain’t it de troot?

Originally Published: December 23, 2018


Short-term thinking costs General Motors, US taxpayers

Just after Thanksgiving, General Motors made the jarring announcement that it was closing five factories in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, killing the production of several models including the Cadillac CT6, the Chevrolet Cruze compact, the Buick LaCrosse, the Volt plug-in hybrid, and cutting about 14,700 jobs. This is the firm’s largest cost-saving plan since the taxpayer-funded bankruptcy bailout in 2009.

GM received more than $50 billion of taxpayer assistance through the Troubled Asset Relief Program during the financial crisis. While the feds recovered $39 billion, the firm’s management failures cost taxpayers $10.5 billion. General Motors had racked up more than $40 billion in losses since 2005 alone, losses that had little to do with the financial crisis.

Many of the jobs to be eliminated are populated by those who are perpetually in debt, no matter how hard they work. And if you believe senior GM executives will not receive their annual bonuses, then you believe pigs can fly.

The automaker, the leading automobile manufacturer of the 20th century, expects to free up $6 billion in cash flow by the end of 2020, which will enable it to double down on its investment in electric and autonomous vehicles to stay competitive in a fast-changing market and sluggish sales.

The automobile industry is simultaneously facing multiple disruptions. For example, young, environmentally conscious, technology-oriented urban residents increasingly shun car ownership in favor of more convenient, less expensive mobility options. Owning a car and getting a driver’s license aren’t the life milestones they once were.

For years, General Motors has not been building the vehicles American consumers want. As a result, their car lineup has had more misses than hits. It has been slow to respond to competitive pressures and to align firm resources with changing market demands. For example, the rapid rise of Tesla Motors in the electric vehicle market, Toyota gaining market share with its eco-friendly Prius and the subsequent GM bankruptcy suggest that the firm made the wrong decision when it aborted its electric vehicle program in 2002.

In the ultimate irony, General Motors had a head start with electric vehicles. The firm introduced the “Impact,” a concept electric car, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January 1990. The Impact was met with immediate praise and GM announced that it would become a production vehicle. Based on the proof of concept electric vehicle, the California Air Resources Board passed a zero-emissions vehicle mandate that required all major automobile suppliers to develop them if they wanted to continue to sell in California.

General Motors became the world’s first mass-produced electric vehicle retailer when, in a blaze of glory, it released the EV1 in 1996. The vehicle could only be leased, despite requests by many customers to purchase it.

But in 2002, the firm cancelled the model that might have been its best hope for the future, citing high costs, a limited market for electric vehicles, and the lack of technology to make high-performance cars. GM recalled all the EV1 and, in one of its worst public relations moves, recycled them, meaning the recalled vehicles were taken to Arizona and crushed. The electric powertrain that powered Tesla vehicles was based on the prototype developed for the EV1.

Once again, GM management demonstrated that short-term thinking is extremely costly in the long term. It is a reflection of the firm’s slow adjustment to changing consumer tastes and the failure to tailor the firm’s resources and business strategy to rapidly changing market forces.

General Motors may have been a 20th-century giant with a large past but today its future may be getting smaller. The sands of time may well be running out for the firm to prepare for the automobile industry’s still-uncertain future.

Originally Posted: December 22, 2018

A day that should live in infamy

Early in 1941, the government of resource-poor Japan realized that it needed to seize control of the petroleum and other raw material sources in the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina and the Malay Peninsula. Doing that would require neutralizing the threat posed by the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The government assigned this task to the Imperial Navy, whose combined fleet was headed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The Imperial Navy had two strategic alternatives for neutralizing the U.S. Pacific Fleet. One was to cripple the fleet itself through a direct attack on its warships, or cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as the fleet’s forward base in the Pacific.

Crippling the U.S. fleet would require disabling the eight battleships that made up the fleet’s traditional battle line. It was quite a tall order.

The most effective way to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a naval base would be to destroy its fuel storage and ship repair facilities. Without them, the Pacific Fleet would have to return to the U.S., where it could no longer deter Japanese military expansion in the region during the year or so it would take to rebuild Pearl Harbor.

It soon became apparent that the basics of either strategy could be carried out through a surprise air raid launched from the Imperial Navy’s six first-line aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto had a reputation as an expert poker player, gained during his years of study at Harvard and as an Imperial Navy naval attaché in Washington. He decided to attack the U.S. warships that were moored each weekend in Pearl Harbor. But in this case the expert poker player picked the wrong target.

The Imperial Navy’s model for everything it did was the British Royal Navy. Standard histories of the Royal Navy emphasized its victories in spectacular naval battles.

Lost in the shuffle was any serious consideration of trying to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a forward naval base. So it was that, in one of history’s finest displays of tactical management, six of the world’s best aircraft carriers furtively approached the Hawaiian Islands from the north just before dawn that fateful Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, launched their planes into the rising sun, caught the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its pants down and wrought havoc in spectacular fashion. On paper at least, this rivaled the British Royal Navy’s triumph at Trafalgar.

But so what?

The American battleships at Pearl Harbor were slow-moving antiques from the World War I era. As we know, the U.S. Navy already had two brand new battleships in its Atlantic Fleet that could run rings around them. And eight new ones the navy was building were even better.

More importantly, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers weren’t at Pearl Harbor. American shipyards were already building 10 modern carriers whose planes would later devastate Imperial Navy forces in the air/sea battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.

Most importantly, as the sun set on Dec. 7 and the U.S. Navy gathered the bodies of its 2,117 sailors and Marines killed that day, all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities remained untouched by Japanese bombs, allowing Pearl Harbor to continue as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific.

So in reality, Dec. 7 marked the sunset of Japan’s extravagant ambitions to dominate Asia. Admiral Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy’s other tradition-bound leaders chose the wrong targets at Pearl Harbor.

The dictates of tradition are usually the worst guides to follow when it comes doing anything really important. After all, if they survived long enough to be venerated, they’re probably obsolete.

Originally Published: December 5, 2018