But for the moment, leave those assessments to historians. As GM advances into Year Two after the monumental shakeup of 2009, here are the reasons why it soon could be running on all cylinders – arguably for the first time since Alfred Sloan’s multi-brand monster took over the U.S. auto market in the Fifties:
Revival of sales: GM held by far the largest share of the American auto market before its bankruptcy filing. While it had dwindled steadily over the decades, GM’s 22% stake in 2008 still ranked far above that of any other OEM. But all that changed when GM management ceded control to the federal government rather than go into fire-sale mode, and GM’s market share in April was down to 18.7%.
But there are strong reasons for optimism about GM’s overall sales trajectory. The U.S. car market as a whole seems on its way to a solid 11.5-million-to-12-million-unit year, which would represent a double-digit improvement over an abysmal 2009. That alone will lift GM sales without an improvement in market share.
GM executives also believe they can chip their way back toward a market share in the 20s, based on their recent stream of highly successful launch vehicles and the prospects for several more in the coming months, including the highly anticipated Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid late in the year. Moreover, GM hasn’t had to go mad with sales incentives to consumers so far this year; is creeping back into the leasing game; and is enjoying a resurgence of its dealer relationships now that the rationalization of the retail network has been wrapping up.
Strong new products: GM executives are fond of pointing out that their last six major product introductions – Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Equinox, Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac SRX, Cadillac CTS Wagon and GMC Terrain – all are selling very well and engendering strong consumer enthusiasm.
And they’re quick to point out that they’ve got much more on the way, including a critically acclaimed Buick Regal and a new Chevrolet Cruze small car this summer – before the Volt’s debut.
For the longer term, it’s to the credit of new CEO Ed Whitacre that he didn’t much disrupt GM’s engineering and product-development empire because, frankly, they had gotten their act pretty much together before last year’s sales debacle. Under recently departed Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, GM was already in the process of giving American consumers great vehicles to drive. And GM insiders vow that Lutz’s makeover will live on.
Streamlined brand architecture: GM gamely tried to support eight brands for too long, constrained by the product requirements of its dealers and deluded by a strange attachment – probably decades too late – to the notion that somehow the company would someday recover enough of its lost market share to justify so many brands when none of its competitors has more than three.
Now that it has jettisoned Saturn, Pontiac, Saab and Hummer, the outlooks for the remaining four brands are that much better simply by subtraction. And each brand retains distinct strengths that will continue to suit it well as new CMO Joel Ewanick tries to figure out how to make them truly synergistic:
Chevrolet: GM’s biggest brand continues to offer blockbuster potential (despite its newfound preoccupation with discouraging the use of its “Chevy” moniker) based not only on its newest products but also on its lasting love affair with mainstream America. Ewanick just needs to get his marketing crew to do a better job of tapping into that huge reservoir of brand equity.
Buick: Long confused about how to position and market Buick, GM now is benefiting by the fact that only Buick occupies the vast ground between Chevrolet and Cadillac. And GM already is making a much better case for Buick as its near-luxury brand, with worthy new products and brazen comparisons of the brand with the gold standard, Lexus.
Cadillac: There never has been any confusion about the fact that Cadillac is GM’s luxury marque. One of the few great things that GM did over the last decade is to overhaul Cadillac’s design scheme, introduce some great new Cadillac products, and solidify its standing with luxury buyers. Ewanick’s quick reassignment of Cadillac advertising duties, however, is meant to let everyone know that there’s no resting on those laurels in the Cadillac logo.
GMC: In some ways, this was a surprise as a brand survivor in GM’s overhaul. But the company had to have somewhere to center its surviving large-SUV and pick-up truck business, so GMC gets the nod. Its brand challenge is to transition to a more distinct face to consumers from its “professional grade” brand identification – largely aimed at small-business owners – of several years ago. Great new products such as the Terrain and Acadia crossovers are helping the brand meet that goal.
Internal dynamics: GM is finally beginning to enjoy some advantages that it simply never had, in its quest to climb atop the global automotive world once again.
One of them is that, after all the personnel shuffles at the top over the last year, it appears the company has the right people in the right key positions. While Whitacre isn’t the long-term answer as CEO, his outsider’s perspective – not to mention the imprimatur of President Obama – has given him authority make necessary changes, and he hasn’t shirked from the responsibility. Wunderkind Ewanick may be just the guy to revive GM’s moribund marketing. And Mark Reuss, a lifetime GMer trained as an engineer (and son of a former top GM executive) has been given the reins of North American operations because he has a great track record and tons of respect inside the company.
Another unprecedented – and stunning – advantage for GM is that it finally is beginning to enjoy a manufacturing-cost edge over its rivals. For decades, GM couldn’t overcome its roughly $2,000-a-car cost disadvantage versus Japanese competitors; that was most noticeable in GM’s shoddy execution of small cars.
But with union pension and health-care obligations and those pesky bonds either eliminated or restructured, GM may already be enjoying a cost edge of several hundred dollars over Toyota and Honda – and be on its way to a cost advantage that will soon be measured in thousands of dollars. That gives the company a new pool of financial resources out of which can come more profits, pricing flexibility, better content in its vehicles – or all of those premiums.
Forgiving public: At some level, the American people and politicians are still fighting the watershed Battle of General Motors that ended last year with a draconian takeover by an Obama administration that was ideologically predisposed to nationalize the country’s biggest car company – and didn’t see a difficult choice between taking over GM and allowing the economic calamity that would have followed its collapse.
For example, in mid-June two conservative Republican Congressmen pricked GM with a letter that accused GM executives of destroying documents and e-mails that would shed light in their investigation of Whitacre’s inadvisable recent TV ad in which he touted GM’s repayment of $6.7 billion in federal loans.
But the American public at large might not care anymore. In June 2009, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 47% of Americans surveyed had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” attitude toward GM. Yet by last month, that measure had improved to only 27% with bad vibes toward the company.
At the same time in the new poll, 37% had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the automaker, compared with a total of only 18% who held either view about a year ago.
When GM issues an initial public offering of stock again, which Whitacre has called for as early as late this year, it will represent a final act of a sort of corporate contrition — because it will enable the company to restore private ownership. And in the eyes of the American people, General Motors’ restoration may well be complete.