WHEN Maryann Keller arrived on Wall Street in the early 1970s, she knew very little about cars. That quickly changed when she was assigned the auto beat at Kidder Peabody & Co., a brokerage firm.
As one of the country's foremost financial analysts for the auto industry today, Ms. Keller has carved out her own place in an industry dominated by men. Keller realized that to understand car companies, she needed to understand ``the people that run the company rather than [simply] the cars they build,'' she says. ``The consumer will tell me whether the cars are a success.''
In preparing her new book, ``Collision: GM, Toyota, Volkswagen and the Race to Own the 21st Century'' (Doubleday, 287 pp., $25), Keller says she ``spent most of the last two years in the air,'' traveling around the world to interview the people who lead the auto industry.
``In order to build a car, massive resources and talents must come together, comprising a substantial percentage of a nation's economy,'' she writes.
Asked to name the ``Big Three'' auto companies, most Americans would think of Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Yet in an age where cars are assembled with components from around the globe, Keller has chosen a ``global Big Three'' for her new book: GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota.
``I chose three companies who, almost in succession, were the standard-bearers for the auto industry,'' Keller says in an interview. ``Until the recent present, they were in one leadership position or another. Yet none of these companies was able to make [its success] go on in perpetuity. They became comfortable, inflexible, bureaucratic, arrogant.''
Keller describes the struggle the global Big Three face today as a ``collision, not between competitors, but with the future.'' She sees each of these huge companies struggling with the demands of staying light on their feet.
The bureaucratic inertia she calls ``big company disease'' has been well documented at General Motors. After Keller committed to write her new book, GM's outside board of directors staged a revolt against management, providing plenty of unexpected drama for her story. And despite a leadership change at Volkswagen, its financial woes have continued.
Comfortable, inflexible, bureaucratic, arrogant. Most observers would agree that the description applies to GM and Volkswagen. But Toyota? ``People might find it hard to associate those adjectives right now with Toyota,'' Keller admits. ``But Dr. Toyoda talked about Toyota suffering from the `big company disease' years ago.'' In 1990, Shoichiro Toyoda invited Keller to a corporate retreat for Toyota executives. She was asked to talk about how they could ward off the problem. ``He was very much aware of it, but ... actually pushing that message through the organization is very, very difficult,'' Keller says.
In the 1980s, Japanese firms ``ceased to be the lean producers of old,'' Keller writes. ``Toyota blundered in featuring upscale, higher priced cars even as Japanese consumers were awakening to the harsh reality that they could not afford luxury.''
Keller says that big firms need to be ``jolted out of their complacency.'' A worldwide recession with plummeting profits - even at Toyota - provided that jolt.
The auto industry, she says, has ``always risen or fallen on the backs of individual men.'' ``Collision'' chronicles the successes and foibles of the leadership running the global Big Three.
At the end of her book, Keller singles out GM as the company ``best poised to be a strong, dynamic twenty-first-century company.'' ``That isn't because it is `better' than the other two,'' she writes. ``In many ways, it's in worse shape than both Toyota and Volkswagen. But the striking difference, the one thing that makes GM stand out, is that it experienced a near-fatal crisis that shocked every fiber of its corporate being, and it is using that crisis to transform itself.''
Do not run out and buy GM stock, though. Keller still sees problems: ``You could give General Motors a Lexus and I don't think they would know how to market it.'' Also, she does not see much to like in the current contract negotiations between GM and the United Autoworkers union. ``The UAW seems to have chosen to not be a partner in helping General Motors recover,'' she says.
Keller's earlier book, ``Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors,'' was named one of Business Week's 10 best business books of the year in 1989. Now a managing director at Furman Selz Inc., in New York, she watches the industry, making recommendations for clients. Ford and Chrysler are both on Keller's buy list. Chrysler has been there for two years, Ford for several months. Her price target for Chrysler stock? ``If it got to $60, I would reappraise it to decide if it was worth keeping.'' Chrysler closed Wednesday at $48.25. ``Ford, I think, can get up to $70,'' Keller says. ``Unless, of course, the economy stalls.'' Ford closed Wednesday at $55.25.