Book Review: The Turnaround Kid, What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies by Steve Miller, Former CEO, Delphi Corp.

Steve Miller plays the role of the ‘Cleaner’.  When a movie’s mission plan falls apart, the ‘Cleaner’ is called in to clean up the mess. Pulp Fiction and La Femme Nikita are two films that both have a Cleaner type character. He’s someone who comes to the problem quickly, do what needs doing to make things right, and then vanishes without a trace. You admire him for his pure sense of purpose. You pity him for his lack of emotion or compassion.

As a corporate Cleaner, Steve Miller’s autobiographical book takes us from his childhood in Oregon as the grandson of a wealthy lumber baron to his current Delphi bankruptcy job. His early years include Stanford and Harvard of course but things aren’t as predictable as you might expect.  While at Harvard he meets an older single mom and without getting into the intimate details, the two fall in love and marry.  In order to justify the wedding to his parents, they get pregnant which ‘forces’ the marriage out of duty and gives Miller a convenient excuse to marry her.  He later regrets this moment of spinelessness.  Throughout the book, Miller recognizes the contributions and the challenges that Maggie provides. 

Joining Ford’s finance department out of Harvard, Miller was on his way in corporate America.  But after a few international assignments and a comfortable corporate life, he gets a call from a former colleague to come and help save Chrysler.  After some careful thought, Miller decides to give up the safety of Ford for the risk of Chrysler.  The experience he would have helping to save Chrysler would mark the beginning of his career as a corporate rescue artist.

The books goes into quite some detail about his time at Chrysler during the Iaccoca years.  During this time, Miller proves himself as a hardworking realist who did whatever it took to get the job done.  But as Chrysler returned to profitability, Miller notices Emperor CEO Iaccoca beginning to stumble over his own ego.  Organizational egoism seems to come along when organizations themselves develop leaders into royal figures by catering to their every whim based on fear and reward.  Other leaders see them and perpetuate the culture.  The CEO is the king and the VPs are the princes.  Although there isn’t a clear succession plan for this public corporate king so the princes’ need to brutally compete for the right to ascend the throne. This sometimes involves getting rid of the King! Miller’s aspirations gradually grow as he attempts to throw his boss Iaccoca ‘under the bus’ so he can assume the top job. He justifies this as a duty to the shareholders but one can’t help but suspect that Miller’s own ambitions were at play supported by his financial skill and sense.

Millers audacity and fearlessness he attributes in some part to his independent personal wealth. With nothing to lose and never having to worry about financial wealth, Miller was free to speak his mind and take some risks.  He admits this gave him an advantage over his colleagues who couldn’t afford to lose their job by challenging their boss.  

After losing the battle to control Chrysler, Miller moves on to the world of Wall Street as a financial consultant.  He works on a number of corporate rescues.  Some turn out well while other do not.  Eventually, he returns to Detroit to help the ailing Delphi Corporation.  By now, Miller’s self confidence is high and his usual speak the truth style starts becoming more divisive.  He admits that he goes too far when citing an example of a highly paid lawn care worker who make $65 per hour.  Although many agreed that this example showcased all that was wrong with Detroit, it also suggested all his workers were overpaid for doing menial tasks.  Although he was right, it wasn’t a very motivating comment and further divided himself from his employees. This isolation he blames on the union but to some degree, he himself is at fault.  With his ever more aggressive style, I believe he saw the UAW as more of a challenge then a partner.

But back to the book…  as I write this, Delphi remains in bankruptcy and Miller is still with the company.  He didn’t expect he would be by the time his book was published but the economy has delayed things.  The comments about top UAW leaders and others have probably made his job even tougher but if there’s someone who can handle it, Steve Miller is the Cleaner.