Remembering Jerry Flint: Critic with a conscience

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

FORTUNE -- In October, 2000, Jerry Flint, then a columnist for Forbes magazine, gave a speech to 150 engineers and technicians at the General Motors proving ground in Milford, Michigan.

That in itself wasn't so unusual. The proving ground had a tradition of inviting outsiders to speak. But Flint used his podium to deliver a thoughtful but very forceful critique of the company, its management, and its products.

Jerry Flint

"GM executives don't seem to understand that the art of the auto business is building desirable vehicles, not killing models and closing plants," he declared. "You are badly led, with an organization that doesn't work.

Flint's critique quickly became the subject of water-cooler gossip, and copies of his speech were passed around the company like a samizdat in Soviet Russia. Months later, Automotive News, which seldom recognized the work of journalists not its own, belatedly discovered the phenomenon was too big to ignore.

"Stoked by the kind of buzz that only the Internet can generate," it wrote in March, 2001, "Flint's diatribe has continued to smolder, proliferating in email messages and photocopies circulated among GM employees, dealers, suppliers and outside observers."

Predictably, GM officially responded with disdain. "He likens himself to a canary in a coal mine warning us and other automakers about impending doom," said a spokesman, "but a few of us look at him more like he's a dodo with a megaphone."

GM, of course, would descend into bankruptcy in 2009 after running up losses of tens of billions of dollars.

Flint was 69 at the time of the GM speech. A Detroit native, he had been covering the industry for nearly half-a-century for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and others, and would go on to do so for another decade. His last column was published Sunday, Aug. 8, a day after his death from a stroke.

Besides his deep knowledge of the industry, Flint possessed a keen insight that allowed him to crystallize the issues in any situation with just a sentence or two.

After riding in the backseat of a new Ford compact car, the Contour, which had been developed at a cost of $6 billion, Flint declared that the car was cramped and the headroom was insufficient. The Contour's poor packaging became a theme running through numerous critiques of the car, and it died an unlamented death.

And when Fiat took control of Chrysler last year, and subsequently announced plans for an ambitious renewal of its product line, Flint's first question was "Where is the money going to come from?" The company had gone through bankruptcy and was short of cash.

Although in later years he tended to do more thinking than reporting, he aggressively went after scoops as a younger man.

While working for the Wall Street Journal in Detroit in the 1960s, he was assigned to write a story about upcoming new models. Along with an enterprising photographer, Flint found a location that happened to be on company property where he could see still-secret cars from Chrysler. When challenged by a security officer, he brazenly declared "We're from publications downtown" and was allowed to continue taking pictures.

Flint had a reputation as a curmudgeon and a cynic. But he loved the industry he covered for so long and maintained close ties to a number of its players, frequently writing notes to executives to compliment them and offer suggestions.

He was delighted when CEO Alan Mulally, then newly arrived at Ford (F, Fortune 500) from the aerospace industry, called him on a Sunday and spent an hour absorbing his insights. He also enjoyed the bravado and glamour that surrounded the industry's outsize personalities like John Z. DeLorean, Lee Iacocca, and Bob Lutz.

An equal opportunity critic, Flint frequently aimed his journalistic fusillades at Ford and Chrysler. But he saved his best ammunition for GM, which, being the biggest, provided the most tempting target and was also prone to the most embarrassing gaffs. When he discovered that the engineers of the Chevrolet Caprice had deliberately misspelled the word "gauge" as "gage" so it would fit in a smaller space, he could barely contain his delight.

Flint frequently wrote about GM's complicated matrix organization, which seemed to leave nobody in charge or accountable for anything. And he was unrelenting in his criticism of GM executives like former CEOs Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner because they were finance executives and not engineers or "car guys."

As he told his audience at the Milford proving ground in 2000, "I know the difference between cars made of steel and cars made of clay, and more important, I know the difference between men made of steel and men made of clay."

Flint was made of steel, but with a big heart, a generous spirit, and an unquenchable enthusiasm for his work and the auto industry. To top of page