Obama’s Auto Adviser ‘Uniquely Qualified’ For Task

Ron Bloom, key adviser to auto industry task force, brings Wall Street savvy, ties to labor unions, and a penchant for out-of-the box solutions to restructuring of GM and Chrysler.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ron Bloom, a key adviser to President Barack Obama's new auto industry task force, brings a combination of Wall Street savvy, ties to labor unions, and a penchant for out-of-the box solutions to the government-led restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler.

Bloom, 53, a former investment banker who has worked with the United Steelworkers union since 1996, will serve as a top adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as the Obama administration attempts to revamp two corporate giants living off billions in government loans.

General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC are scheduled to submit roadmaps to viability Tuesday that show how they will repay $17.4 billion in promised government loans. The companies face a March 31 deadline to complete their plans, or else the government can pull the loans, essentially forcing bankruptcy.

Described as cerebral and blunt-talking, Bloom has been credited for taking creative approaches to managing the downsizing of the steel industry and creating a leaner operating structure. He also advised airline pilots in 1994 in the $4.9 billion employee buyout of UAL Corp., the parent company of United Airlines, and he worked with auto parts supplier Dana Holding Corp. to develop a health care trust fund.

"He's not someone who brings just a conventional, cookie-cutter approach. He's going to force people to think about new ideas," said Andy Kramer, a Washington attorney who has sat on the opposite side of the bargaining table from Bloom.

Forgoing a single "car czar," the Obama administration chose to create a multi-agency panel led by Geithner and White House economic aide Lawrence Summers. Advising Geithner, Bloom will have the day-to-day task of working with carmakers, their bondholders and labor unions to force concessions, reprising a similar role he played during the consolidation of the steel industry in the last decade.

A Harvard Business School graduate, Bloom served as a vice president with the Wall Street firm Lazard Ltd., focusing on the steel and airline industries. As a top aide to the steelworkers union's president, he helped resolve a 10-month strike against the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Corp. in 1997, broker an agreement with Goodyear Tire in 2003, and facilitate Esmark Inc.'s successful tie-up with Wheeling-Pittsburgh in 2006, defeating a plan to merge with Brazil's Companhia Siderurgica Nacional SA.

"He brings a unique perspective from Wall Street but can also relate very well to the steel worker, to the man on the shop floor," said Mark Glyptis, president of USW Local 2911 in Weirton, W.Va. "He should be given a tremendous, tremendous amount of credit for restructuring -- and I believe saving -- the American steel industry."

Billionaire investor Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who has rescued failed companies in the steel industry, described Bloom as "very tough but very pragmatic and very well-informed. He's not just some ideological person. He's really very practical and I think he's kind of uniquely qualified for this task."

In 2003, Bloom helped negotiate a new contract with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that included many provisions that could be a part of the future GM and Chrysler. The Goodyear contract required the tire maker to refinance its debt quickly, maintain its U.S. plants, and limit executive pay.

Asked by Business Week if he didn't trust management, Bloom responded, "We're not going to save this company and then go back to the old ways of doing things."

Bob King, vice president of the United Auto Workers union, said he believes Bloom will have a balanced view, "because ultimately, we all understand that these companies have to succeed if we want to protect the jobs, and retirement and health care."

One of the major obstacles involves negotiations between the UAW and General Motors over payments into a trust fund that will handle retiree health care expenses. Bloom will bring a deep knowledge of the voluntary employees beneficiary association, or VEBAs, which he helped set up with Dana and Goodyear.

"He knows them as well as anybody in organized labor in my view and he knows it as well, probably, as anybody on the management side," said Joseph O'Leary, a Boston attorney who has worked with Bloom. "He really understands the issues that are confronting the auto industry right now."

O'Leary, who has represented management in negotiations on many steel restructuring cases, said Bloom has actively pushed for alternatives such as providing board membership for the union and profit-sharing for workers.

"He was obviously representing organized labor all the way through but instead of just saying, 'This is what we need, this is what we want,' he was bright enough to say, 'OK, what are the concerns that you have?' ... so that you could come to an accommodation."

In 2005, Bloom's old firm, Lazard Ltd., was hired by the UAW to review GM's finances when the automaker sought help in reducing its massive health care burden. A UAW spokesman, Paul Krell, told Reuters at the time that Bloom was involved on an informal basis to help the union review GM's finances. Krell called him "an old friend of the UAW."

UAW legislative director Alan Reuther said Monday that Bloom had "very limited conversations" with the union during the review, "but he was never part of the UAW team, the UAW set of advisers."

Kramer, who has represented Goodyear and Dana across the table from Bloom, doesn't expect the UAW to get a sweetheart deal.

"I don't think he's going to play favorites here," Kramer said. "I think he's going to look at what's best, how best to get the companies in the best position they can be at and be an advocate for that."

AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher reported from Detroit.

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