DETROIT -- Back in the day, before Detroit automaker hubris was crushed by the big fall in the Great Recession, General Motors claimed the head seat at the table.
It's true. As recently as when Bill Ford Jr., now the company chairman, was CEO of Ford and Rick Wagoner was CEO of GM, meetings meant Wagoner tried to claim the head seat at the table by virtue of his company's position as the largest automaker in Detroit. Bill Ford wasn't yielding, it's just that Wagoner had that expectation.
The tradition dated back many years, in which meetings of Big Three executives meant seating was arranged in pecking order of size. But then came the big fall.
Wagoner was let go as GM entered bankruptcy and took a government bailout while Ford avoided bankruptcy and government bailout and made a might comeback. GM has come back, too, after the fall, and still has size among its advantages. But Ford and CEO Alan Mulally, who engineered one of the most dramatic business turnarounds in American history, now claim the head seat at the table in Detroit in a manner of speaking.
Take the 2012 North American International Auto Show that got underway in Detroit Monday as one example. Moments after the car of the year award was handed out to the Hyundai Elantra, kicking off the show, Ford and Mulally took command with the first presentation and didn't let up.
Ford's media event started the company presentations at 8 a.m., with Chrysler and Chevrolet following close behind. But it was Ford and Mulally that commanded the vast majority of attention from the 5,000 or more journalists in attendance by grabbing them first and early and not letting go. Granted, GM got a head start with a Sunday night pre-auto show event unveiling its new Cadillac ATS model -- an event that smelled of success -- but it still had some pre-game qualities, since it was removed before the traditional show start.
Still trying to engineer the final stages of the company's transformation by establishing a game-changing sedan, Ford unveiled its new Ford Fusion at the event Monday, with the hope that the sleekly styled, technology-packed latest version of the nameplate would gain the brand more traction in the very heart of the U.S. market, said Ford.
The company said the new Fusion offers Ford's most progressive styling yet in the mainstream mid-size sedan segment that until a few years ago was dominated by Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The new Fusion is starting from a position of strength, said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. The time is right to change the way people think about midsize cars.
Ford's aim with the new Fusion, already a top-seller for the company and a reason Ford continued to have sales increases in 2011, is simple: unique design that gives some edge to the mid-size category and jaw-dropping fuel economy. Translation: Ford hopes it will become the leader of the class, beating the Camry and Accord hands down.
Mulally said Monday talking with reporters buyers will decide if the Fusion takes that mark: We're focusing on the consumer, and the consumer will decide.
Beyond the car, however, which in the early stages has wowed many analysts and automotive observers, the story about Ford is that the company has progressed so far since hard times that it now commands a front seat at the table in Detroit. And when Ford starts talking these, industry people listen, intently.
It may seem petty, but in Detroit, positioning is everything.