This article is part of a series of articles written by MBA students and graduates from the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.
By now we have all heard the story of GM’s faulty ignition switches that are being linked to thirteen deaths and thirty one front-end collisions. The ignition switches in car models: Chevy Cobalt; Chevy HHR; Pontiac G5; Pontiac Solstice; Saturn Ion; and Saturn Sky, lacked the torque specs required by GM engineers. Heavy key chains, bumpy roads, or an accidental knee hit were all reasons reported that could cause the ignition switch to rotate to the off or idle position. Once this happened, the driver would lose control and the air bags would fail to deploy if a front end collision occurred. A total of 2.6 million vehicles were recalled, of that 2.2 million were in the United States. For this type of recall, GM was not requiring vehicles to go back to the manufacturer or be disposed. Rather, a more robust key ignition was distributed to all authorized GM dealerships and customers were told to bring their cars to the local dealership and a new ignition switch would be put in for them.
Despite the massive recall and all the negative publicity that goes along with such an event, GM still posted positive numbers in their quarterly earnings. GM posted an operating income of $0.5 billion for 1Q14, which is included the $1.3 billion recall-related charge. Furthermore, GM controlled approximately 17% of the U.S. market share. After the ignition switch incidents started to gain traction, GM swore to reorganize their global engineering department, and they did. So, if GM’s sales profitability is surviving, their negative press contained, and their market share intact, what exactly went wrong?
Two-thirds of General Motors automotive costs in 2014 are from supplier sourced parts. However, this was not always the situation. Back in 1999, GM underwent an extensive effort to disassemble their vertical integration in hopes of reducing overall costs. At this time, Delphi Automotive was owned by GM, but separated during the same year. For decades, GM was Delphi’s only customer, and even when Delphi executives knew GM was going to make them a public company, they were only able to move 22% of their business to other customers. When GM officially made Delphi a public company, 82.3% of their shares went to GM shareholders. That means that only 17.7% of Delphi was sold to public investors. In order to survive as a company, Delphi had to start making cost reduction decisions. To do this, companies often lay off employees and make cheaper parts, Delphi was no different. Now during this same time period, GM executives were focused on focused on costs reductions and were driven by numbers, hence the selling off of Delphi. It should be noted that if a company sells off their single largest parts supplier, fully aware that the move may cause the supplier to go belly up, there will be some strained relationships. Delphi was now thrown into a position where they must compete with other parts suppliers for GM’s business. An important part of the deal GM made when selling off Delphi was to keep all current supplier contracts. In addition, GM gave Delphi the opportunity to match any competitor’s bid until 2002. The earliest model of a recalled GM car was 2003.
Strained supplier relationships are not ideal for business, but should not affect the quality of a product, such as an ignition switch. Let’s fast forward to 2008. Delphi had declared bankruptcy three years prior and GM was beginning to pull them out of their financial burden. A contract was found between GM and Delphi that was drafted in 2008. The document is a little difficult to follow, but there are a few interesting lines in Section 5.09 Product Liability Claims. It appears that, GM said they would share the blame with Delphi for any claims against them. However, GM would not be held responsible if one of Delphi’s parts, or a part made for Delphi by a third party, fails. The contract continues on to say that GM would pay any legal fees if a claim was made against Delphi, but Delphi must defend GM through a potential lawsuit. This contract was drafted and signed in 2008, during which Delphi was bankrupt, so it appears they had little negotiating power.
This raises concerns specifically about the ignition switch specs. It came out that GM officials knew the ignition switch they purchased from Delphi was not up to their standards. After some more research, an email transaction between Delphi officials in regards to the plunger, the vital part that holds the key slot in place with a spring, and the ignition switch. At the end of the document, the original engineer drawings are attached. From the technical drawings it can be seen that Delphi did in fact outsource the design specs, and possibly the manufacturing, for the plunger design. Another document, that was preceding the email transaction, appears to inform GM that the plunger part was changed and the responsibility of the supplier is “closed”. This could have been a legal move meant to save Delphi if any claims were made related to these parts.
After all of this evidence, where does the blame lie? It would appear that GM used their powers to force Delphi into a contract that held them responsible for any claims against their products. While Delphi did warn GM that the torque requirement for their ignition switch did not meet GM’s requirement, it is unclear whether or not a verbal warning will play into the legal battle. This case is currently ongoing, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Connor Harrison holds a B.S.M.E and MBA from the University of New Hampshire.