In 2012 America declined to accept your offer to serve as its Chief Executive. Now we need your skills for a very different mission, one that could be as vital to the nation’s future as serving as its president.
The city of Detroit is lurching toward bankruptcy. As a son of the Motor City, you know its dismal state better than anyone. When you grew up there, it was the richest city in America. Today it ranks as the second poorest after Cleveland. Once the Mecca of American job creation, Detroit’s unemployment rate sits at 20 percent. Its population has shrunk by a quarter in the last decade, and by two-thirds since 1960.
Its schools are a disaster; its streets are unsafe; its city services are abysmal. It has to be deeply distressing to see the former industrial capital you once called home transformed into block after block of vacant real estate — by some estimates, as much as 40 million acres.
In 2008 you wrote in a New York Times editorial that “Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check” from the federal government. At the time you were writing about the auto industry. Today it’s the city of Detroit itself that needs the turnaround — and I believe you are the man to do it.
In 2012 I published Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, which showed how Detroit’s auto industry mobilized to equip our armed forces to win the world’s greatest war. Your father played a central role in that mobilization miracle — the same role I believe you can now play in transforming Detroit from a symbol of failed Big Government into a symbol of successful free enterprise.
People think of your father George Romney as the former head of American Motors. But few know that he also served as executive director of the Automotive Council for War Production, that in the years 1942-5 oversaw the conversion of Detroit into the “arsenal of democracy.”
The challenges he and the city faced were different from today’s, but just as staggering.
The nation’s automakers had to transform themselves into defense plants almost from scratch. Managers, engineers, and workers had to learn to make things they had never made before in unimaginable numbers, from jeeps, trucks, and tanks to aircraft engines, machine guns, artillery shells, and entire B-24 bombers that by 1944 were coming out of the Ford plant at Willow Run at the rate of 120 a month.
It required unprecedented cooperation between businesses and government, but also among the auto companies themselves in building new plants, hiring and training new workers, and sharing materials and resources, including engineering and industrial designs.
And it wasn’t just big companies like GM, Ford, and Packard who led the production march. A small army of mid-sized companies of subcontractors and suppliers (12,000 for General Motors alone) also spurred innovation and production–and brought tens of thousands of new workers into the city. By D-Day total employment in the Detroit area had more than doubled. By 1945 when the ACWP disbanded, Detroit was poised to become the richest city per capita in America.
But as George Romney and his colleagues understood, it wasn’t the existence of big auto plants and factories that made Detroit the arsenal of freedom. It was the innovation, creativity, and productivity those factories represented. And it’s those qualities that can remake Detroit again.
As you know, this past March Michigan’s governor put the city under the control of a city manager. Kevyn Orr has done a brave job of trying to tackle a runaway emergency, including a $14 billion debt burden.
But he’s going to need help getting to the real solution: economic growth.
That means unleashing the same entrepreneurial ingenuity and productive know-how that built the Motor City in the first place, and that your father channeled during World War Two.
By forming a volunteer committee similar to the ACWP, you could turn your expertise and knowledge of private sector turnarounds from your years at Bain Capital and the Olympics, and your political skills as governor of Massachusetts, into a force that complements what Kevyn Orr is doing trying to solve the city’s fiscal mess.
For example, you could urge a three-point plan for revitalizing business in Detroit.