Friday, October 2, 2009

Saturn Crashes

It was very disappointing to hear the news about Roger Penske pulling out of the deal to acquire GM's Saturn division. Of all American automakers, I believe Saturn had the best chance of transforming into the type of organization that could compete with Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, and it's really too bad to watch it go down without a fight.

At one time, Saturn was a very interesting company. It started in the mid-1980s completely isolated from the poisonous culture of General Motors as a way for the company to compete with Toyota and Honda. They utilized a separate dealer network, built a new factory in Tennessee, and hired a completely new "non-auto industry" workforce. The division also focused on creating a positive customer experience - something for which GM has never been known.

It Should Have Worked

The idea was good; the implementation was mediocre; and the strategy over the last 15 or so years was extremely poor. At some point, the infinite wisdom of GM executives kicked in and interfered with the development of the company. GM management decided to virtually stop the division's development of new vehicles and bring it into the company's fold. As a result, Saturn lost any of the benefits it once had and entered a death spiral from which it had no chance of escaping. The interesting experiment quickly became the stepchild of the company, and was strategically lost among the other GM divisions.

My disappointment with the latest news is that I don't believe the bad habits that Saturn has most assuredly developed since being rolled into GM's culture have been around long enough to be ingrained into the Saturn culture. It probably would not take very long to move the company back to its roots and create the type of culture that is necessary to compete with other automakers.

To survive in today's market, an automaker must be able to quickly develop new models that people want to buy while improving quality and lowering costs on a continual basis. Given the decisions and actions over the last several years, however, I don't believe that this is possible at GM because there are just too many cultural barriers in the way. The people at Saturn should know what it's like to be a small, flexible company, though, and separating it from the mother ship would give it the opportunity to rebuild without the interference of GM management.

To succeed, Saturn would need to have a flat organization structure that is light on management and heavy on leadership, innovation, and teamwork. It is not rocket science, but is only possible if the people in charge have the vision of what a customer-focused, flexible organization looks like, and the attention span to stick with it through good times and bad. I don't think GM has such a vision - but I was hoping that the Penske Group did.

When I hear people within GM say that Saturn was never viable or necessary, I can't help but think about the parallels with Hyundai Motor Company. Originally created to build cars for Ford, company management decided in the 1970s to design and build their own cars. In the mid-1980s, the Excel became the company's first car sold in the U.S. - a small, fuel-efficient model that, to be honest, was very poor quality. But the company stuck to its vision and continually improved its product offering and quality and is now a serious competitor in the global market. This could have been Saturn had GM management been patient enough to not interfere.

Just Make It Quick

The senior leaders at GM have failed in their ultimate responsibility as stewards of the company. General Motors has a colorful and interesting history that has been a major part of Americana for more than 100 years. The company that employed hundreds of thousands of Americans (and affected exponentially more), and includes the likes of William Durant and Alfred Sloan, has steadily declined through arrogance, greed and poor decision-making. As a native of Detroit, the situation makes me very sad and very angry.

Company officials announced that, with the collapse of the Penske deal, Saturn will close its doors by October, 2010. As sad as the news is for the U.S. auto industry, a quick exit may actually be better than the type of slow, lingering death that Oldsmobile and Pontiac have experienced. As we look to the future, though, I have to wonder whether a similar fate awaits Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, and Buick.

1 comment:

88buff said...

Gregg, I too was disappointed to hear the news about Saturn not making it. I was working at Hal Riney & Partners, the agency that helped launch the brand back in the days, and always loved that they were trying to take a very fresh approach to making a car.