- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

The automotive industry has been a man’s world for most of its history, but financially troubled General Motors has turned to a pair of high powered women marketing executives to revive under-performing Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Saturn brands. It’s a Herculean assignment for the executives and one that’s vital to GM’s effort to become profitable again.

The executives, Jill Lajdziak, Saturn’s general manager, and Susan Docherty, a GM vice president who oversees the Buick-Pontiac-GMC sales channel, brush aside suggestions that the company should abandon these brands and focus on the successful Cadillac and Chevrolet nameplates.

Even as the auto industry struggles in the midst of its worst recession in more than a decade, the executives say their strategies are starting to result in better sales for their brands.

Saturn’s Jill Lajdziak says her revitalization plan has achieved a 20 percent improvement in market share last year and that sales of new products such as the Aura, Vue and Outlook have climbed 3.4 percent through July 31. But the slow acceptance of the entry-level Astra has chopped Saturn’s overall sales by about 18 percent in 2008. Lajdziak is encouraged, however, by the Astra’s recent sales.

She’s counting on a program that will result in the revitalization of the 440 Saturn stores nationwide. The program was requested by the dealers themselves because customers have enhanced expectations about their shopping experiences.

Chris Bower, Saturn’s manager of retail strategies, led of a team of Saturn shoppers earlier this year on a survey of leading retail establishments for inspiration to improve auto selling experiences. The shoppers examined electronics, cosmetics, food and upscale clothing stores to find the best retail experiences. Now Saturn is determined to integrate those practices into its own retail outlets.

Lajdziak says this will help lift sales of Saturn’s portfolio, which she claims is the freshest in the industry. Much of Saturn’s portfolio comes from GM’s European Opel brand. Opels are designed to compete with Volkswagen in Europe, but Lajdziak believes the vehicles will also compete effectively against Japanese brands.

Docherty’s strategy for reviving Buick, Pontiac and GMC hinges on paring down the portfolio of the three brands to a smaller collection of high-selling models. She says that her channel needs five models that will sell at least 100,000 units annually. Docherty also wants four models that will sell at least 75,000 annually and five others that sell a combined 100,000 units per year.

Her target is to sell more than 900,000 vehicles per year at retail within 24-36 months. “There will be fleet sales above and beyond this, but we’re not going to speculate on the percentage,” she says. The three brands accounted for sales of more than 1 million vehicles overall last year.

GMC accounts for more than half of the retail sales, followed by Pontiac and Buick. The latter brand has tumbled far from its high point, with GM selling more Buicks in China than in the U.S. But Docherty forecasts that Buick’s fortunes are on the rise here.

Its future design direction will be revealed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November when an Invicta-inspired LaCrosse debuts. “It will mark the second chapter of Buick’s renaissance,” she says. “There are also more chapters to this book,” Docherty promises.

Her plans for Pontiac envision transforming it into a sporty car company that targets youthful people. GMC will capitalize on its reputation as a “professional” truck brand. But she intends to stretch GMC’s appeal with at least one more crossover utility vehicle. “We will be adding another crossover to GMC fairly soon,” Docherty says.

She insists that there is no car in GMC’s future. “GMC doesn’t need to stretch that far and I don’t want to destroy the brand’s DNA,” she says.

The jury is still out on whether Ladjziak and Docherty can pull off the turnarounds of their brands. But since most vehicle purchase decisions are made by women today, it might be smart corporate strategy to entrust selling valuable brands to women executives.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide