Task force exec Ron Bloom can see all sides in auto fight

His résumé may not be packed with car industry experience and political know-how, but in a few short weeks, Ron Bloom has become one of the most powerful people in the auto industry.

Bloom, assistant to the United Steelworkers union president until February, now is one of the leaders of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry, the group charged with determining by March 31 how much — if any — more government aid the U.S. auto industry will get.

He is working alongside financier Steve Rattner, who leads the Treasury's efforts as counselor to Secretary Timothy Geithner, focusing on the General Motors GM and Chrysler restructuring plans. While they are peers on the task force, Rattner's experience is more in private-equity media investments and as a Democratic fundraiser. Bloom has avoided the spotlight, but his background is deep in manufacturing.

The task force has been neck-deep in meetings with executives, labor leaders, bondholders, think-tank experts and lawyers trying to determine what, exactly, should be done.

Friends and colleagues describe Bloom as smart, straightforward and passionate about making manufacturing viable in the United States. He left a lucrative Wall Street career in 1996 for less than $87,000 a year at the union.

"There is nobody in the unique position to bring capital, management and labor together to transform their business into ongoing capital concerns," says Mike Psaros, managing partner of KPS Capital Partners.

He also speaks his mind, says Psaros, who's known Bloom 20 years.

"He always tells the truth, and I don't know how that's going to play in a politically charged restructuring," Psaros says. "He tells people objective facts they don't want to hear."

Rattner, by contrast, is known for political savvy and weighs his words.

"I don't know that he has a deep background in automobiles, but he's someone who brings a very smart business sense to the table," says Darrell West, a Brookings Institution analyst who's known Rattner 20 years. "He is a team player who will help build consensus."

While the team is focused on restructuring the industry, some worry that misses the big picture: If people don't start buying cars, there'll be no industry to save. February sales were the lowest since 1981.

"You can't cut your way to a profit," says Denny Fitzpatrick, owner of Fitzpatrick Chevrolet and Buick in Concord, Calif. "That's got to be coupled with people coming in and buying things."

But the group's immediate task is to determine this month whether GM's and Chrysler's plans could create viable, competitive companies — and how much aid they could get to try to do so.

Bloom likely will pitch fundamental change as essential and in the best interest of all the stakeholders, despite the pain, Psaros says.

"His mantra has been 'No Band-Aids,' " Psaros says. "He will tell the management of these companies, he will tell the (union), and he will tell the debt holders and stockholders that there won't be any quick fixes, that this is a one-time and unique opportunity with the government's help to fix these companies."

Recruited from Wall Street

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, says he recruited Harvard-trained Bloom from Wall Street, where he was founding partner of Keilin Bloom, an investment fund specializing in turning around manufacturing companies.

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