Category Archives: Human Resources

Italian Assignments, Navigating Cultural Differences

Italian Assignments – Guidelines for Navigating Cultural Differences

University of South Florida

December 4, 2017

Todd Benschneider, Gabriel Bussell, Ali Dogan Sivritepe, Pam Sundown

 

Table of Contents

 

 

  1. Employee Responsibility and Preparing for Success
  2. Bureaucratic Tasks and Tips
  3. Anticipated Economic Adjustments
  4. Schooling for Children
  5. Transportation
  6. Housing
  7. Medical Care
  8. General Business Etiquette
  9. Effective Negotiation Styles
  10. Dress Code and Personal Fashion
  11. Dining Etiquette
  12. Gifts
  13. References

Employee Responsibility

Please understand that your assignment is first and foremost to serve as a corporate diplomat for your employer: Interglobal. One thing that is certain, you should expect that the progress toward your business objective to take much longer than you anticipate, so please adjust the timelines of your assignment objectives to accept these differences, a good rule of the thumb is U.S. estimated timeline multiplied by 2.5 (20). It will also benefit you to resign to the fact that controlling your Italian business partners sense of urgency or work ethic will usually damage relationships. With that stated, your first task will be to adapt your pace to the Italian partner’s timeline.

 

In addition, it is your duty to understand the Italian’s “Ugly American Stereotype”, and avoid reinforcing any negative preconceptions such as: Americans are rude, self-righteous and condescending towards their Italian hosts. It is imperative to understand that over 30% of American expats abandon their first foreign assignment in the first twelve months, the high failure rate is easily reduced by intensive culture preparation like the training course you have been provided (20).

 

Another obstacle in cultural acclimation is the preparation of your family for the assignment, which is why they will also be participating in preparatory conditioning for the cultural adventure the family is about to embark upon. Success on a foreign assignment will prove your resourcefulness and adaptability and be an important stepping stone in the advancement of your areas of responsibility here at Interglobal.

BUREAUCRATIC REQUIREMENTS FOR YOUR EXPAT ASSIGNMENT

For Italian work assignments that last longer than three months, US citizens are required to obtain a “National Work Visa”. Most companies handle the application on your behalf; however, the approval process usually takes six to nine months; therefore, it is imperative that you follow the status of the application and understand your company’s policy. Family visas are comparatively simple to acquire after your National Visa has been granted, your family will only require a written request and valid passport to join you (12).

 

Depending on the living arrangements provided by your employer, you will probably need also to apply for a residency permit to rent or purchase a home. With a residency permit, you will need to apply for tax number, this number, much like a social security number will be required for many routine family needs such as obtaining insurance or healthcare (12).

 

In addition, most expats learn the hard way that their U.S. mobile plan does not transfer to Italy and that roaming charges can rack up a frightening bill unless you modify your plan to an international package prior to your arrival. For business purposes it is standard to have a prepaid Italian SIM card installed on your mobile phone which can convert your current smartphone to a local Italian phone number. When you want to switch back to your American number, you just swap back to the original SIM. A popular technology in Italy has become dual SIM mobile phones that allow you to carry two independent phone lines on a single phone, one as your personal number and the other as your work number (19).

 

ANTICIPATED ECONOMIC ADJUSTMENTS

The cost of living in Italy is not significantly higher than in the US, but the regionally adjusted income to cost of living equates to around 50% higher depending on region. The first observations many expats realize is are larger pay gaps between junior and mid-level managers, this may be a factor of the Hofstede Power Distance Index of 50 compared to the US score at 40 (9). The Hofstede-insights.com website is a valuable tool to use in understanding international cultural differences. For example, Italy pays its young workers the lowest entry level wages when compared to its western European neighbors, you can expect to find students from with excellent academic credentials hiring in at a 2016 average starting pay that equates to $32,500. In contrast nearby Switzerland offers its new graduates an average starting salary equal of $99,300. In the United States you are accustomed to working with young college graduates that typically hire in at $50,200. Fortunately for our prospective mid-career expats you will learn that Italy uses the money saved on young employee salaries to compensate older workers. While still at 11th of 15 western European countries Italy pays its mid-level supervisors the equivalent of $84,100 annually, which climbs quickly as you climb in the corporate ranks (14). These salary differences are partly cultural and due to the fact that Italy has limited resources that impact its current potential GDP. On the following page are detailed comparisons of each region’s major city with cost of living compared to Tampa. You will notice surprisingly inexpensive rents but low local purchasing power due to lower average salaries and higher tax rates (13).

 

 

Milan’s Local Salary Purchasing Power is 50% lower than Tampa’s

Rome Local Salary Purchasing Power 49% Lower than Tampa

Naples’s Local Salary Purchasing Power is 59% lower than Tampa’s

 

 

SCHOOLING FOR CHILDREN

Most expat families send their children to international schools to alleviate the challenges of mastering academic fluency in a second language. The benefit of attending an accredited international school, is that these institutions provide a standardized coursework that transfers into other international locations and can increase chances of being accepted into the most selective international universities (11).

 

In Italy, schooling is broken into three cycles plus kindergarten, which begins with three years of optional kindergarten through age six, then a mandatory elementary school through age 11, during this cycle Italian education system requires all students to learn two foreign languages, the first is typically English which is introduced while children are seven years old, a second foreign language is required at age eleven (7).

 

Following the elementary school cycle, Italian children enter middle school for ages eleven through fourteen. At fifteen they begin the third cycle that we call high school which they are required to take an admission test to qualify for the academic courses to prepare them for the universities. If their academic skills lag their peers, they will typically be assigned to a vocational training school rather than a high school (11).

 

 

 

 

TRANSPORTATION

You should plan on relying on public transportation for the first several months, since you are legally required to carry an International Driving Permit to rent a car. In addition, expect to pay about 60% more for gasoline, however on the bright side, Italians also drive on the right side of the road and most major highways have no speed limits (7).

 

Public buses and trains are the most affordable and reliable mode of transportation in major cities, many expats use the iBus line.  Fortunately, Uber has become very popular in Italy’s major cities in recent years and is often the most affordable mode of transport in many areas, however the Uber network is not well developed in smaller towns (7). Unlike Uber, many taxi drivers will frequently take advantage of foreigners by insisting on payment much higher than the meter reading (7).

 

HOUSING

While many of you will be taking advantage of housing provided by the company, some may choose to explore alternative housing, especially those who find a work from home culture. In Milan and Rome, many prime apartments are being bought up by investors and utilized as AirBNB rentals, which is a type of personal Home to rental Hotel room application that works on a similar principal as Uber as does for personal transportation, this trend is creating a shortage of small apartments with a view of the city (12); however, it is an excellent way to rent for a short while in different parts of the city prior to signing rental contracts.

 

 

MEDICAL CARE

Italian employers are required to contribute to the government health insurance of their workers. Unemployed and retired are covered by the government plan which ensures that as a nation, Italians are well cared for. In comparison to other overseas assignments, Italy provides some of the best healthcare for its residents, including expats. Expats may want to consider private add-on insurance to expedite the timeliness of their medical care visits, especially on assignments where they may not qualify for the host company insurance provisions. As a general rule of thumb, medical attention is given to all regardless of insurance coverage, add on insurance speeds the process and covers most items not covered by the government health insurance. Consult with other expats in your region for their recommendations on medical centers that are familiar with the expat health insurance requirements (12).

 

GENERAL BUSINESS ETIQUETTE

As a rule, Italians have difficulty trusting strangers and most business relationships require and introduction by a third party from the host culture. It is generally considered unprofessional to approach executive level business partners and introduce yourself to begin pitching them your ideas, instead you would normally be introduced to them by someone of similar rank that vouches for your expertise and trustworthiness and begins the conversation for you mentioning your expertise on solutions (10).

 

While English is often the preferred second language of Italian international firms, you should understand that most professionals expect you learn Italian to be accepted into the inner fold of office politics. The Italians are very proud of their heritage, language and culture, and have a hard time building relationship with foreign business associates that are not interested in learning their language. Remarkably, even if you have a mastery of the standard Italian dialect taught to American students, you should expect to be puzzled by the countless number of local dialects that distinguish one region from another (8).

 

NEGOTIATION STYLE

Overcoming the differences in negotiation styles between the American approach that you might take for granted and the decision-making processes of your Italian counterparts has the potential to make or break your success on the assignment. In the first year on your Italian assignment you will wise to negotiate using a host country assistant since mistakes made during this period can cause long term damage to your relationships. You can expect to have a difficult time gaining access to decision makers above your own rank, in the Italian business world, the decision makers are rarely in the meeting where the negotiations take place, because of this you can expect that no hard decisions are normally made during the meeting. You are simply presenting your side and responding to their objections, the junior associates at the meeting will relay the information to the decision makers and who may mull over the proposal for months before responding that they are interested (22).

 

In Italy, decision makers are expecting to deal with someone their own level of seniority, so if you are under 35, it will be wise to reconsider representing yourself in the negotiations, the Italians can feel insulted that they are not dealing with your boss, even if you are the sole decision maker. With that in mind, if the Italians send older representatives to the negotiating table, be certain to address them first, last and with a great deal of deference, even if you are unsure that they are the true decision makers.

 

Italian corporate culture typically requires that a respected host country executive introduce the interested parties, during that introduction day, avoid talking business unless a senior member of their team specifically brings up business matters. Expect several weeks to pass and several visits before the prospects bring up business. It is at these critical points that you be patient and respect their business traditions, this is an area where many Italians expect you to turn into “an ugly American” and try to rush them into viewing you as a trusted business partner. Your Italian partners feel that high pressure tactics are an indicator that they are being tricked into an agreement that is not in their best interest, by instead drawing out the agreement they are comforted by the fact that you are comfortable with them looking at your proposal at every angle. Once they see that you have their best interests at hand when proposing what should appear to be a “win-win” collaboration of resources in your first few agreements your future partnerships will progress with less effort (22).

 

Italians will avoid being direct and often ignore your demands for an immediate acceptance or refusal of terms. It will be rare to hear host country partners use the word “No” during negotiations; instead, they will change the focus to a different part of the agreement or skirt away from business talks and ask about your family. Patience will become a daily mantra during your first year in Italy, without patience your business objectives will often fail to win the cooperation needed from your Italian counterparts. Compare the graphics below to gain a deeper understanding of the difference in the negotiating process (21).

(21)

 

DRESS CODE AND PERSONAL FASHION

Dress codes vary by region and climate; however, you can expect that your Italian coworkers invest a larger portion of their income in their clothing and spend a larger amount of time evaluating their wide range of potential outfits for the day at hand. At first glance you might be misled by the lower number of white shirt and tie dress codes than in the United States; however, if you look closely you may find that knit crew neck shirt is anything but a t-shirt, instead it could be a meticulously pressed merino wool knit that might cost several hundred dollars, the type of attire that Americans would save only for weekend social events.  For example, few American workers with salaries under $100,000 even consider purchasing a $500 pair of shoes or a $2000 handbag; however, it is common in Rome and Milan to notice that some junior level managers own several pairs of $500 designer shoes and a couple of $2000 bags, and what astounds most Americans is that they wear such expensive fashions to work on a daily basis. Forget about the American concept of “work clothes” being the ones that you are not concerned about getting soiled or torn. With that in mind, Italian business people take great care of their clothing, most items are professionally laundered after each day’s wear with the exception of wool suits which are usually hand steamed at home before returning to the closet. As for sneakers or sneaker inspired casual shoes, they are not often seen inside a business office, so when in doubt plan to limit your sneakers to the gym or the ballfield and the same can also be said of typical American jersey cloth sweat suits.

For women, take note that colored nails are uncommon, and makeup is light or often non-existent inside the workplace and is generally considered tacky and the hallmark of a stereotypical tourist. Instead of makeup, women invest their primping time into the preparation of their hair to achieve the best possible shape and shine. You will often be surprised as well to learn that even junior level females commonly spend $100 per week to have their hair care maintained by the countless number of highly respected salons across the major cities, in Milan stylists at the most elegant salons make over $100,000 year (19).

 

While women’s business attire might initially seem sexier than you might find in an American business environment, you will notice that it comes from Italian clothes to be form fitting rather than expose skin, so be cautious about the low-cut blouse or high hemmed skirt that is considered acceptable in American offices. You will later gain an overall perspective on where each culture places its discretionary income, when those Milan coworkers are shocked to learn that you had two $40,000 cars in your garage back in the United States at your pay level.

 

DINING ETIQUETTE

Italians take food very seriously, and take their time enjoying the food experience. When at a restaurant, it is not uncommon to spend several hours enjoying the company of those you came with. Expect to be at a restaurant for a minimum of 1-2 hours, possibly more, especially on Sundays. Each region, and sometimes even individual cities, have their own specialty dishes, so the best way to immerse yourself in the local culture is to ask your server about the specialties. A full Italian meal typically consists of an appetizer, a first course, and a second course with a side dish.

Most Italians drink mineral water and/or wine with meals and you can expect to see a charge on your bill even for tap water. Coffee is not served until after the meal. Italians usually eat late meals, where lunch will not start until approximately 1pm, and dinner not until 8pm. Nearly all shops and restaurants are closed for three to four hours between lunch and dinner; however, in large tourist areas, one may find restaurants open all afternoon. Because Italians spend significantly more time at restaurants than Americans, the server will almost never bring the bill to the table until asked to do so. In addition, table etiquette is similar to most countries in terms of utensil use. However, forearms (not elbows) should rest on the table, not on the lap, which is common in American culture.

Large tips are frowned upon in Italy; most wait staff are viewed as distinguished professionals and receive a respectable living wage salary. In most regions a “service fee” or table fee is included in on the bill which represents a built-in tip, in these situations it would be uncommon to leave an additional tip. Therefore, the most valued tip is enthusiastic praise to the chef and server. Ask your business associates for their recommendations on tipping practices in the area that you will be working, they will appreciate your concern for adapting your behavior to the local practices and be more willing laugh off any inappropriate mistakes made along the way.

GIFT GIVING

Italians like Americans have corporate restrictions on receiving gifts from vendors, so gifts are not expected from business associates, but are common when invited to a home for a dinner party. Typical gifts are inexpensive and often representative of your home country such as American liquors or chocolate, when in doubt flowers are suitable for any occasion, however avoid chrysanthemums which are used for funerals and never given an even number of flowers as it is considered bad luck.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Alm, J., Bernasconi, M., Laury, S., Lee, D. J., & Wallace, S. (2017). Culture, compliance, and confidentiality: Taxpayer behavior in the United States and Italy. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization,140, 176-196. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2017.05.018
  2. Business etiquette. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://businessculture.org/southern-europe/business-culture-in-italy/business-etiquette-in-italy/
  3. Cost of Living in Italy – International Living Countries. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://internationalliving.com/countries/italy/cost-of-living-in-italy/
  4. Curtis, M. B., Vinson, J. M., Conover, T. L., Lucianetti, L., & Battista, V. (2017). National Culture and Ethical Judgment: A Social Contract Approach to the Contrast of Ethical Decision Making by Accounting Professionals and Students from the U.S. and Italy. Journal of International Accounting Research,16(2), 103-120. doi:10.2308/jiar-51824
  5. Dining Out in Italy: How to Enjoy an Italian Meal. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.tripsavvy.com/eating-out-in-italy-1547406
  6. Doing business in Italy: 5 Tips for Foreigners. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.italybeyondtheobvious.com/tips-on-doing-business-in-italy
  7. Education and Transportation in Italy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.internations.org/italy-expats/guide/living-in-italy-15326/education-and-transportation-in-italy-2
  8. Executive MBA IN Italy. (n.d.). Dictionary of Marketing Communications. doi:10.4135/9781452229669.n3250
  9. Hofstede, G. (2016, October 14). Country Comparison Italy vs United States . Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/italy,the-usa/
  10. Inge, S. (2013, December 02). Six tips for Italian business etiquette. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.thelocal.it/20131202/six-tips-for-italian-business-etiquette
  11. Italian education system, italian schools, schooling in italy, Italian nursery school, primary schools in italy, italian middle school, high school, secondary schools in italy, vocational studies in italy, academic schools, Italian universities. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.understandingitaly.com/profile-content/education.html
  12. Italy Pros and Cons for an Expat Assignment. (2012, October 25). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.expatarrivals.com/italy/pros-and-cons-of-moving-to-italy
  13. Italy vs United States Cost of living Stats Compared. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Italy/United-States/Cost-of-living
  14. Local, T. (2016, February 17). Young Italian workers are among worst paid in Europe. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.thelocal.it/20160217/young-italian-workers-are-among-the-worst-paid-in-europe
  15. Miller, D., Breton-Miller, I. L., Amore, M. D., Minichilli, A., & Corbetta, G. (2017). Institutional logics, family firm governance and performance. Journal of Business Venturing,32(6), 674-693. doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2017.08.001
  16. Raspadori, P. (2011). Inequality and culture: geographical differences in the access to cultural enrichment in Italy (1863–1992). Continuity and Change,26(02), 219-241. doi:10.1017/s0268416011000105
  17. Rosch, D. M., & Haber-Curran, P. (2013). Learning Leadership Abroad. Journal of Leadership Education,12(2), 148-154. doi:10.12806/v12/i2/148
  18. Rosen, E., & Rizzo, G. B. (1961). Preliminary Standardization of the MMPI for Use in Italy: A Case Study In Inter-Cultural and Intra-Cultural Differences. Educational and Psychological Measurement,21(3), 629-636. doi:10.1177/001316446102100309
  19. Starr, G. (n.d.). Facts About Italy & Fashion. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://traveltips.usatoday.com/italy-fashion-13086.html
  20.   Expatriation: Why does it fail? (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.expat-us.com/expatusblog-relocationusa/2014/9/2/expatriation-why-does-it-fail-
  21. Lubin, J. G. (2015, August 14). 23 fascinating diagrams reveal how to negotiate with people around the world. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-negotiate-around-the-world-2015-8/#italians-regard-their-languages-as-instruments-of-eloquence-and-take-a-verbose-flexible-approach-to-negotiations-6
  22. R. (n.d.). Negotiating styles in Italy. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://www.minorccbs.com/skills/negotiations/item/negotiating-styles-in-italy

 

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General Motors: Social Stigmas Faced By Industrial Workers

Todd Benschneider

September 16, 2012

General Motors Recovery and the Influence of Social Stigmas Faced By Industrial Workers

           The 2008 bailout of General Motors remains a focal point of economics analysts and political journalists. Today, nearly four years after its corporate collapse, reporters alternate between glowing praise and sharp criticism. However, regardless of journalistic viewpoint, one fact cannot be ignored: General Motors has clawed its way back up Fortune Magazine 2012 rankings into 5th place of America’s largest revenue corporations (Morgenson 1).

The second observation that can not be ignored is that the press and public opinion during the recovery period have focused heavily on corporate leadership and the politicians who engineered the bailout.  A crucial factor missing from the news articles: The devotion shown by designers and assemblers at General Motors who have banded together to prove that they can produce a world class product at a competitive price. The thousands of headlines during the period the followed the auto industry meltdown reflect the values with which modern Americans view industrial workers, providing recognition to white collar workers and leaving unmentioned of the achievements from the engineering and the industrial trades, this shift in values may be contributing to declines in domestic production.

Much of this anti-union and industry sentiment results from taxpayer resentment of the government rescue of the world’s largest automaker General Motors, that left the American taxpayers owning 31.9% of the common stock. Today GM rightfully wages a daily war on two fronts: normal industry competition and now the new front of public relations, under a microscope of press scrutiny and public opinion. While this scrutiny seems to have generated results with increased accountability,  as units sales climb, product ratings improve and as profitability reaches new levels. This can be seen in the 2012 employee profit sharing plans, which will provide dividends to compensate for a large portion of the pay cuts hourly employees had accepted as part of the restructuring plan. According to an article in the New York Times that for 2012 it is projected that “45,000 union workers would receive profit-sharing checks averaging $4,300, the most in the company’s history” (Morgenson 4).

However, many industry critics present pessimistic statistics possibly influenced by political agendas and an ingrained anti-industrial sentiment. In an example, an article that opens with anti-Obama critique, industry writer Louis Woodhill wrote a scathing review of GM products in the August edition of Forbes under the shocking title “General Motors is Headed for Bankruptcy—Again”. In the article Woodhill interprets a scoring aspect of recent “Car and Driver” review with:

“Not only was the 2013 Malibu (183 points) crushed by the winning 2012 Volkswagen Passat (211 points), it was soundly beaten by the 2012 Honda Accord (198 points), a 5-model-year-old design due for replacement this fall. Worst of all, the 2013 Malibu scored (and placed) lower than the 2008 Malibu would have in the same test.”

Despite a moderate share of negative press many Americans, influenced by recession and unemployment are reconsidering purchasing American industrial products in hopes that their support will result in a mutually beneficial environment for the American economy. This attitude is shared in the New York Times news article titled “General Motors 2012 Earnings: Second Quarter”, which while presenting a negative spin on GM’s European subsidiary, the article does present a positive spin on GM’s domestic operations with the paragraph:

“In its new carnation, the automaker is proving that it can be profitable at a lower sales volume. The company announced in February 2011 that it earned 4.7 billion in 2012, the most in more than a decade. It was the first profitable year since 2004 for G.M. which became publicly traded in November 2012, ending a streak of losses totaling about $90 billion” (Morgenson 1).

However recently an equal number of industry writers have taken a middle of the road stance on the American auto industry such as the CNN Money article entitled “A Recovering GM is Losing Ground at Home” which despite opening with the statistic that GM lost nearly 2% of the domestic market share in 2012, the article goes on to cite the influence of external factors by quoting auto industry economist Sean McAlinden with “Its very complex, the latest downturn isn’t from lack of sales, it is the result of GM closing down 3 million units of production facilities to improve profitability.” The article also offers hope in the second paragraph with “The Cadillac division in coming months will benefit from two key new model introductions” (Levin 1).

Economists and political journalists write about GM leadership strategies and shareholder returns but ignores those autoworkers putting in the effort day after day to prove that they can once again dominate the global automobile market.  This critical public opinion of American manufacturers and the negative stigma of industrial trades is withoutquestion the greatest obstacle of corporate moral. The resulting negative self-image among industrial workers slows the progress of American industry and that anti-industrial sentiment begins with the attitudes that modern Americans view those industrial jobs.

Over the past 150 years careers in manufacturing goods that were once viewed as hi-tech careers are perceived by many with a negative stigma. This negative connotation is fostered through the American educational system, especially seen in views of the parents of school children in manufacturing communities. The attitudes being imbedded in schoolchildren are that by studying hard and earning professional credentials that they could escape a dirty and dangerous, low paying life of industrial work. Those children later grow into consumers that believe that through hard work and achievement that they “escaped industrial servitude” with careers in medicine, science and especially education and who grow  up to resent industrial workers earning similar wages who in their eyes have not earned the right to those wages through scholastic self-improvement. What many educated professionals do not realize is that those high paying industrial jobs need to offer compensation levels that can attract reliable workers to fill jobs with much less desirable working conditions.

These anti-industrial trade values are crippling todays American manufacturing companies, especially in the automobile industry. A slow drive throught the parking lot of any white collar company such as JP Morgan here in Tampa and you can count that nearly 85% of white collar workers in non-industrial cities buy foreign produced automobiles and the  15% of the exceptions to that rule are almost exculsively those few who desired the largest of SUV’s that do not have foreign counterparts. Polling these owners for an explanation, uncovers the nearly universal response offered by import owners, is their belief that the American manufacturers produce an inferior, unreliable product. Many that offer this assumption often admit that they had never owned a new American car for comparison, and deveolped these opinions from information from the press.

The declines in American manufacturing will likely continue until society offers industrial achievement similar recognition to those contributing to the advancements in computer technology and finance professions. You can not build a championship team without being able to recruit the best engineering talents entering the workforce and you can not obtain those cream of the crop graduates to accept a job in an industry with a sinking prestige factor.

Work Cited

Levin, Doron. “A Recovering GM is Losing Ground at Home”. CNN Money. May 11, 2012

http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2012/05/11/gm-2/

Ed. Morgenson, Gretchen. “General Motors 2012 Earnings: Second Quarter”. The New York  

Times. August 2, 2012

http://topics.nytimes.com/business/companies/general_motors_corporation/index

Woodhill, Louis. “General Motors is Headed for Bankruptcy –Again” . Forbes. August 15, 2012

http://forbes.com/sites/louiswoodhill/2012/08/15/general-motors

Consumer Resistance to Superior Technology: General Motors Hybrids, Siri and Video Messaging, Why are We So Slow to Adopt?

Todd Benschneider

University of South Florida
Revised 4/23/2018

When I first wrote the foundation for this article on “Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicles” nearly six years ago, I was hoping to make sense of the unexpected marketing challenges that we uncovered when Americans proved surprisingly reluctant to purchase the General Motors electric and hybrid option vehicles in 2012.

The market timing of 2009-2012 seemed ideal for electric automobile technology, with record high fuel prices, deeper understandings of global warming and the inevitable decline of petroleum production in the coming century.

On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable assumption in 2012, that industry projections for alternate fuel vehicles would become a reality and “most cars of  the future” (by 2020 was the expectation) would employ some form of electric or hybrid powertrain.

It is ironic how eight years into the future seemed limitless in its potential; but, eight years ago, feels like it was just yesterday.

How could anyone not want inexpensive clean energy cars; especially, ones that cost less than a dinosaur powered vehicle?

Few people would even argue that oil reserves could possibly sustain our current demand for gasoline for future generations.

The proposed electric car technology was reliable, those powertrains had proven their reliability for a decade of testing.

The price was certainly right, General Motors hybrid options for Buick Lacrosse and Chevrolet Malibu were priced the same as the gas versions and, as bonus, the hybrids were even more powerful and provided income tax credits.

How could that not sell like a syrup covered hot cake????

I still shake my head in amazement at how difficult it was to get rid of the hybrids we ordered in 2011 at our Buick-GMC store. Several sales managers would have probably been fired if our veteran inventory manager Sandy had not pushed back and insisted that we limit our initial order to six units rather than the twenty that I thought was a very modest forecast …. this was not her first rodeo.

Sandy probably saved my job and managed to dealer trade most of those six aged units from our inventory and I for one, learned a valuable lesson in product development: think twice before building a superior solution for customers who do not see a problem worth solving.

Since that realization I, like many in the industry, have concluded that unless government intervention mandates the phase out of petroleum powertrains, the adoption rate of electric-powered vehicles could take another two decades. Looking ahead now from 2018, I have adjusted my expectations down a few notches from back in 2012; now, I suspect that relying on the market demand alone to bring electric powertrains to full-scale adoption would be overly optimistic.

I find myself taunting the overzealous Tesla enthusiasts with history trivia that the automaker Detroit Electric nearly overtook gas automobiles in the early 1900s, selling over 13,000 electric cars that had top speed of 20 mph and a recharge range of 80 miles. A current Tesla 3 base model is rated for 220 miles of recharge range and with modern production capability has only recently surpassed 200,000 units sold. That seems like a miniscule amount of progress made across the 100 years of technology that evolved between the two.

It also seems unlikely that government intervention will mandate the phase-out of the internal combustion engine. Some assumptions could be made regarding the far-reaching economic disruptions to foreign trade markets, devastation to the economies of export countries, displaced petroleum workers, and the reallocation of every dollar generated throughout the gasoline supply chain, not to mention the economic impact to the plastics and chemical industries which rely on the waste byproducts of oil for cheap fundamental ingredients.

So, despite being a GM guy whose career was built on gas engine emissions and combustion technology, I must admit that I had been rooting for Elon Musk’s solar-powered auto revolution.  Mostly because, I hoped to avoid becoming one of those cynical old guys who fights progress, for no reason other than, maintaining a comfortable status-quo.

I am still optimistic that electric powertrains will become mainstream and that automobiles will convert to solar charged electricity before the rest of the power grid. However, I am imagining that the solar revolution will plod forward slowly for decades in a long-drawn-out guerilla war due to the lack of strong market pull for those alternative fuel vehicles while the petroleum industry survives long enough to support the codependent  plastics industry until renewable sourced manufacturing ingredients are developed.

Hopefully Tesla investors are long-range thinkers and have prepared for the long road ahead when consumer demand someday aligns with electric automobile technology. Recently Tesla’s investors had their confidence shaken when company stock prices dropped over 60% during the first week of April over a combination of news that was only slightly negative. If that bearish responsiveness is any indicator of the market, we could expect that a prolonged loss of investor confidence could snuff out the young company before they make it to the finish line.

Few people in the auto industry expect the Tesla plants to disappear or its existing cars to become obsolete. However, a sharp drop in Tesla market value will most likely lure General Motors or Toyota in to absorb the brand at a bargain price in the coming years. Unfortunately, if that happens, a Tesla surviving without Musk at the helm will probably see electric car technology being pushed to the back burner, adding several additional decades to reach full market potential.

It is times such as this that it becomes apparent that consumers (and voters) stated principals fail to correlate with their actions. This anomaly of consumer behavior manages to slow the adoption of superior technology for reasons that will remain a mystery.

My personal experience from being on the front lines, trying to persuade General Motors customers to buy the hybrid powertrain has burned this demand paradox into my view of most technological advances.

For now, we can appreciate how one man, Elon Musk, passionate about his vision for solar power has managed to get far enough to pose a serious market threat to all three economic super powers: auto manufacturing, petroleum and the global power grid. I tip my GM hat to the relentless visionary and hope he makes it to the finish line to prove the naysayers wrong.

tesla

As a matter of fact, back in 2012, I used to tell a similar story to this one about rates of technology adoption, it was my own story about the technology predictions of a decade earlier. In 2002, a full two years before Elon Musk joined Tesla, while he was busy building PayPal, I enrolled in an Automotive Technology program and was introduced to Professors suggesting that our class focus on the General Motors hybrid trucks and Chevrolet EV1 electric prototypes from the parking lot, since they would be the products in the market when we finished the program in 2005.

Not taking any credit away from the Tesla contributions, but electric and hybrid gas/electric models were well-developed by several large automakers and proven in field testing long prior to 2002. General Motors introduced the GM Impact electric car prototype in 1990 and revised it several times into the EV1 in 1996, adding the S10 EV truck in 1997, the duo sold around 1600 units from 1996 through 2002 when they were discontinued due to high replacement battery costs.

GM prepared the next generation of alternative fuel powertrains, this time using smaller batteries in combination with the standard gas engine, allowing drivers to select between gas and electric modes. The added value proposition to hybrid technology being that the hybrid optioned car could still be driven in standard gasoline mode if the customer chose not to spend the $10,000 plus to replace the batteries required for the electric mode.

In 2002, most of us in the GM world thought this hybrid technology would provide the company with the competitive edge needed to fend off the Japanese competitors in the global market. Inside GM, everyone seemed fully committed to the project and the service press even printed the repair manuals and training materials for an expected hybrid truck product release.

We were told that the first hybrids would release no later than 2005. Surprisingly though, with the exception of the quiet release of a small batch of hybrid tucks in 2005, General Motors delayed the marketing air campaign for hybrid offerings until 2009. The marketing launch failed to build the required buzz among consumers and even with $4 gas, the hybrids were seen by most as a dismal market flop. Some environmental critics claim that the marketing campaign was designed to flop with a hope of preserving GM’s previous investments in gas engine technology while also winning support of environmentally focused politicians.

Regardless of the motives of the ineffective marketing campaign, I was there when new customers came to our showrooms to test drive hybrid models, then agreed with the proposition of the revolutionary technology; but, when it came time to sign the finance contracts, the agreement fizzled out. Many of these deals fell apart in the finance office, when the customers began contemplating uncertain future repair costs, trade in values, warranty extensions and differences in insurance rates. It seemed like many feared that hybrids would be a passing fad and they could be stuck investing in a car that would have limited resale or trade in value.

In fact, from 2008 to 2018 the General Motors dealership I worked at sold around 8000 new vehicles and despite the huge bonus offered to sales staff and managers to improve sales of hybrids, the store sold a whopping total of sixteen hybrid cars in those nine years and nearly all of those were leases.

These thoughts came to mind earlier this week when having a conversation with friends about another ambitious prediction in tech news that, by 2020, over 90% of web traffic will be video rather than the text and image data of today.

Being jaded now by these types of predictions, I shared with them another related story, that just a couple of years earlier I had read a similarly optimistic prediction, that by 2020, few people would be texting and reading from their phones; instead, we would all be using Siri-like voice translators and listening to the replies of others through our cordless ear buds.

With the 2020 model year now only fifteen short months away, I realize that most of the auto manufacturing line equipment is currently tooling for that year’s production and my friends in engineering tell me that they are working from forecasts that fewer than 7% of GM vehicles sold in 2020 will be ordered with the hybrid powertrains.

With that fresh on my mind, I am sitting in the atrium lounge of the University of South Florida, surrounded by nearly a hundred of the youngest millennials and realized that they were all still texting from their phones and reading the responses. I will curb my enthusiasm for consumer technology adoption projections in the future…..  I am starting to see how old guys become so cynical

 

 

The foundation article from back in 2012, here is the research  on the state of fuel economy technology and the obstacles to adoption:

Continued Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicle Technology  – November 7, 2012

EPA policies that affect the economy become front page news in an election year and the hot topic for 2012 is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) revisions, requiring automakers to improve average automobile fuel economy from 29 mpg to 54.5 mpg over the next 13 years. Agreements to these revised fuel efficiency standards were concessions made by automakers during the industry bailouts of 2009.

In the backlash of that federal bailout, critics have been quick to fault American manufacturers for their lack of long-term planning. However, in defense of management strategy, the automakers have for decades been doing what profitable businesses do best, responding to consumer demand (Vlasic).

The press often suggests that domestic auto sales recovery will depend on the fuel economy of the products that manufacturers can provide. These critics assume that consumers make purchase decisions using primarily math and logic; but, those of us in the auto industry experience firsthand that purchase motives are more akin to purchasing fashions or artwork. To most Americans, their car is a part of their self-image, not just a tool that converts dollars into miles traveled.

Journalists such as News-Herald’s John Lasko write articles that with opening lines such as, “With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, many are opting to trade in their gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles.” With news headlines like those, it is easy for the public to conclude that the US automakers lack of sales was due to its heavy reliance on gas guzzling models. However, those assumptions are based on popular ideas that the domestic manufacturers previously lacked the capability to produce fuel-efficient vehicles. In their defense, the simple reality remains, the automakers must make their first priority to produce those vehicles that sell well in the domestic market.

The critics overlook the 3 million Chevrolet Chevettes that were produced between 1976 and 1987 or its domestic counterparts, the Plymouth Horizon and the Ford Fiesta that provided fuel efficiency equal to most economy cars on the market today. For example, the Chevrolet Chevette was for nearly a decade, the American flagship economy car, selling millions by providing a real world fuel economy of 25 city/ 30 hwy, or with a popular diesel engine option reaching 33 city/41 hwy. The Chevette was sold with a base price, that inflation adjusts to about $11,000 in today’s dollars and consistently surpassed the fuel economy ratings of it’s main Japanese competitor, the Toyota Corolla by nearly 2 mpg for nearly a decade (fueleconomy.gov).

Compare those cost and fuel efficiency ratings to today’s most economical products available in the US, the Korean made 2013 Hyundai Accent with an MSRP of $10,665 that is rated at 29 city/39 hwy. The comparison of these cars in the context of the 25 years of technology that evolved between them should dispel assumptions that Asian economy cars have enjoyed decades of superiority in fuel economy (fueleconomy.gov). However, in the American car market, every one of those fuel sipping economy cars was discontinued in the late 1980’s when sales dried up as the pendulum of automobile fashion swung toward a return of larger and more powerful transportation, with the introduction Sport Utility vehicles and the return of V8 powered high performance sedans.

By 1990, it became increasingly unfashionable to be seen in fuel-efficient cars, American auto style entered the age of the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, offering a taller ride height for a better visibility in traffic and providing the owner with a sense of safety and rugged capability. The Grand Cherokee became the benchmark to measure style popularity, marketed with an image of recreational outdoor travel and adventure rather than previous trend for economical commuter transport. These mid-sized all terrain Sport Utilities grew especially popular with female buyers in northern states, at the same time four-door 4×4 pickups became increasingly popular with young male buyers seeking that “Eddie Bauer” outdoorsy image.

Critics often ignore the strategic decisions that allocated research and development funding away from fuel economy and directed budgets to safety, performance and durability to meet the consumer demand curves. Over the past 15 years the average vehicle age alone has grown by a third to 10.8 years old with advancements in vehicle durability (USA Today). Additional progress that was made during that period to improve braking distances and implement crash avoidance technology reduced accident frequency and cut the percentage of crash fatalities in half. In an effort to appeal to consumer demands for more powerful accelerator pedals, 0-60 acceleration times have improved by over 40%. And to counter the reliability critics of the domestic cars from the 1980’s, the inflation adjusted annual maintenance costs have dropped by more than 80% (NADA.COM).

Today even after the industry collapse, American manufacturers once again dominate automobile industry technology development, General Motors again was ranked the 2011 No. 1 innovator in automotive patents by US patent board (Tuttle). However, consumer demand trends in automobiles are similar to those in fashion, with opposing trends recurring in 10-year cycles, such as style trends toward skinny jeans from bell bottoms and short carefully styled hair to today’s bushy headed natural hairstyles. Sociologists attribute 10-year style cycles to be dependent on the needs for generational self-image, as each generation makes fashion and identity statements to differentiate them from the previous generation.

Business Times writer Brad Tuttle suggests that the fuel economy trend that began in 08 will continue to gain momentum:

“A new True Car post traces the average miles-per-gallon rise among new cars sold
in the US… all of the top seven automakers posted dramatic year over year
increases in average miles per gallon. In 2011 the average new Ford got just 17.3
mpg compared with 22 mpg in February of 2012 … the rise comes primarily as a
result of Ford doubling sales of small cars such as the Fusion and Focus”
However, despite increases in economy cars sales, auto sales as a whole have risen, the demand is also increasing on 5-year-old full size SUV’s.

According to industry writer Nick Bunkley,
“Retail prices for five-year-old full size S.U.V.’s are 23 percent higher than a year ago
according to Edmunds.com, an automotive information Website. That is more than
double the average price increase of 11 percent for all five-year-old vehicles.”
One constant in the automobile industry, vehicle selection is an emotional decision more than it is an economic one. Customer buying motives first and foremost are influenced by how the vehicle makes them feel, a vehicle becomes one with the driver, it can allow them to feel bigger, more secure or more powerful. I recently encountered a perfect case that really defined the influence of self-identity on vehicle selection.

Carolyn, a 60-year-old widow and retired guidance counselor arrived at our Buick-GMC showroom in a well maintained, three-year-old, luxury four-wheel drive truck. Carolyn had gotten a letter from our used car department that high demand for trade-ins like her truck had currently driven trade-in values up thousands over the previous year. The letter encouraged her to consider upgrading soon, to take advantage of current trade in values for used 4×4’s.

The timing of the letter was perfect for Carolyn, since she had recently moved to Florida from the Midwest and no longer had the need for wintertime four-wheel drive; to further complicate matter the garage of her new condo also couldn’t accommodate the truck. She explained when she arrived, that she really wanted to reduce her fuel budget and downsize into one the new hybrid Buick Regal sedans she had been reading about in the newspapers, rated for twice the fuel economy of her truck.

Over the following week Carolyn test drove over a dozen of fuel-efficient sedans from ours and different dealerships including the Hybrid Regal that she initially planned to purchase. Despite our best efforts to persuade her to choose our last remaining hybrid, she instead opted to buy the high performance Regal T Type, performance sedan, that ironically provides an only a slight fuel economy advantage of 15% over the truck she was trading in and was priced thousands higher than the $28,000 hybrid version.

Carol admitted that when driving the cars rated highly for fuel efficiency she felt as if she had sacrificed the power that she was accustomed to and those low powered cars made her feel old and slow behind the wheel, she insisted that she “wasn’t ready to feel like an old lady toodling down the right lane, holding up traffic”. Carol’s time behind the wheel of the Regal Turbo made her feel young and put a smile on her face every time she pushed down on the accelerator pedal. For the sake of “feeling young” she was perfectly content to pay an extra $90 in monthly car payment for the high-performance engine and luxury options and disregard the $65 month in fuel savings that the hybrid version offered.

Think of the vehicle choices by comparing it to an airplane selection; imagine choosing between airplanes, where you could select a 2 seat Cessna that might make you feel like buzzing mosquito, or for another $150 a month, you could pilot the F-16 fighter jet or a Boeing 747 to work, ….to you, which of those options excites you? The difference it capability seems huge and imagine if the difference in increased fuel costs was only an additional $100 a month. The thrill of becoming something larger and more powerful and the status that comes with that ownership has an attraction beyond what can be measured in simple terms of transportation costs per mile. American buyers have consistently demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice a larger part of their income to enjoy vehicles that provide them with excitement.

Current sedan trends are influenced by the fuel-efficient designs from Asian manufacturers, designed to handle the high taxes on Japanese gas and the shortage of open roads and parking space on the islands of Japan. Understanding the American tastes requires us to understand the differences in our driving habits and the luxuries of smooth, open roads that Americans can enjoy, foreign drivers are often limited in their ability to appreciate American tastes for size and horsepower.

However, in Australia, with road systems similar to the US, a huge market still exists for large SUV’s, trucks and big engine cars. A market that was penetrated in the 1990’s when many Japanese automakers began to design vehicles to cater to the American influenced market, with large gas guzzlers like the Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia and Honda Ridgeline ensured import survival during the SUV years, and most notably even those Japanese trucks and SUV’s suffer from slightly lower fuel economy ratings than the American SUV competitors.

It has been easy for the press to fault American automakers for their lack of vision in developing economy vehicles, and to blame management for not remaining competitive in fuel efficiency technology. However, despite almost a total lack of advertising dollars for large engine SUV’s, compounded by the handicaps of stale, aged-out designs and a decrease of sales incentives offered, the demand for large SUV’s is climbing back to nearly 2008 levels despite continued fuel cost nearing $4.

Over the past 30 years American consumers have voted with their wallets, fuel economy was considerably less important to them than size, safety, reliability and performance. The challenge that lies ahead is not to build smaller, less powerful cars as much as the need to direct energy-saving technology development at the powerful SUV’s and spirited sedans that consumers demand (nada.org).

Because for many Americans the automobile is more than transportation, it is a fashion decision as much as a financial decision, and many Americans have proven for decades that are perfectly willing to pay a premium to enjoy a few more smiles-per-gallon.

 

Work Cited

 

Bunkley, Nick. “As Car Owners Downsize, the Market Is Strong for Their Used S.U.V.’s.” New

York Times. 07 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

“Side By Side Economy Comparison.” fueleconomy.gov. US Environmental Protection Agency,

07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.

Lasko, John. “Gas Prices Have Car Makers, Sellers, Buyers Looking at Fuel Efficiency.” The News

Herald. 30 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

. “Guidelines.” nada.com. National Automobile Dealers Association, 07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.

Tuttle, Brad. “Even with $4 Gas, Few Drivers Choose Electric Cars – Or Even Hybrids.” Business

Time. 12 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Vlasic, Bill. “U.S. Sets Higher Fuel Efficiency Standards.” New York Times. 28 2012: n. page. Web.

7 Nov. 2012.

“Our Cars are Getting Older, too: Average Age now 10.8 years.” USA Today. 01 2012: n. page.

Web. 7 Nov. 2012.