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Inside 'Team Auto'

By Ed O'Keefe

Fortune Magazine has the good... fortune of publishing a first-person account from Steven Rattner about his leadership of the Obama administration's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

The essay is seeped in economic and business detail, but includes a few interesting excerpts regarding Rattner's decision to join the administration and the logistical and budgetary challenges often faced by public servants. (Watch a companion video interview above.)

Rattner and his colleagues preferred to avoid the "auto czar" meme, so they called themselves "Team Auto": would be the most intense period of work and personal disruption of our careers. For my part, I lived in a sterile sublet condo in Washington and would have to grapple simultaneously with the New York attorney general's investigation of my former firm, Quadrangle Group, and me about our actions in connection with an investment from the state pension fund. But we soldiered on. ...
Our physical surroundings set the tone: While Treasury staff labored to find us office space, we all worked out of a yellow-walled conference room, our desks facing the room's perimeter. Our first meeting with General Motors took place in a dingy, windowless room at the Treasury Annex.
When I asked our energetic young chief of staff, Haley Stevens, what we were going to give our visitors for lunch, she replied, "Nothing. Treasury has no budget for even bottles of water." It seemed harsh to expect our guests to go many hours without eating, so I gave Haley $100 and told her to go to a sandwich shop. That became our hospitality protocol.

Rattner also discussed his initial apprehension about joining the public sector:

The administration was surprised by the reaction from the heartland and paused to regroup. To help defuse the emotion, it created two auto task forces: a cabinet-level group that would receive high-level briefings on policy options and an assemblage of talented sub-cabinet economic thinkers. But the day-to-day work would be done by yet a third "task force," consisting mostly of Wall Street refugees like me, beavering away in the basement of the Treasury building.
Thoroughly unnerved by the task ahead, I had second thoughts. The tight deadline and problems of the industry appeared impossibly daunting: collapse of market share, overwhelming structural costs, profuse bleeding of cash.
I needed the gentle e-mail push that came from Larry Summers. "Life will work out for you either way, though America will be better off if you do this," wrote Larry, whom I had liked and respected for 15 years. He and Tim believed that the fact that I barely knew one car from another was less important than my 26 years advising, financing, and investing in companies. In their minds, this was a restructuring challenge, not a management job.

Read Rattner's entire article here.

By Ed O'Keefe  | October 21, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Administration, FY-Eye  
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