Saturn's Sad Legacy: Nothing

Adrian Imonti
by Adrian Imonti

Saturn is dead. Despite a thoroughly refreshed line-up– including a mild hybrid, a Lambda-dancing CUV, a sexy sports car and a cute ute– the brand can’t get wood. In fact, Saturn’s sales are the very definition of flaccid. Year-to-date, they fell 19.9 percent. In May, sales sank 32.7 percent. In this process of final dissolution, the once autonomous upstart GM brand has become an irrelevant Opel outpost. Saturn’s Spring Hill, Tennessee factory is now in Chevy’s hands. Plastic body panels and unique designs have been swapped for rebadged leftovers from the GM parts bin. Saturn’s slow homicide is more than a shame. It offers a discouraging glimpse into General Motors’ dysfunctional culture.

The Saturn brand was GM CEO Roger Smith’s $5b excellent adventure. Both internally and externally, GM sold its new brand dawning as the American automaker’s import fighter. And why not? The company’s homegrown initiatives to repel the import invasion– the Corvair, Vega, X- and J-cars, etc.– all flopped spectacularly. Equally important, Smith recognized the cultural paralysis within his own Empire. Something had to be done.

Saturn’s mission: drag GM kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, the new era redefined by The General’s foreign competition. To do the deed, GM’s re-boot boasted all the hallmarks of the Toyota Production System– just-in-time inventory management, lean manufacturing methods, flexible job classifications– combined with plant automation that could eventually render the United Auto Workers irrelevant. In tandem with the California-based, joint NUMMI operation (with Toyota), Saturn would reinvent GM, if not the entire automotive business.

Smith singularly failed to cultivate the organizational buy-in necessary to implement the plan. Managers fond of rejecting anything remotely Japanese considered Saturn a parasite sucking resources from their pet projects. UAW leaders knew that Smith would use his beloved robots to sign their pink slips if given the chance. Smith’s efforts to expand centralization and badge engineering among the existing divisions and his abrasive personality only deepened bureaucratic resentments.

Despite the acrimony, Saturn fulfilled its initial promises. Reviews were favorable. Buyer loyalty for the no-haggle proudly domestic car brand achieved cult-like status. But internal politics sealed the marque’s fate. Smith retired in 1990, just as Saturn’s first cars were launched. Robert Stempel, Roger Smith’s loyal successor, resigned only two years later. As its champions disappeared, Saturn floundered no sooner than it had begun.

Saturn’s limited, aging lineup quickly stagnated. Sales peaked in 1994 at 286k units, well short of the 500k goal. In fact, 1993 was Saturn’s only profitable year.

Jack Smith became CEO following Stempel’s ouster. Clearly no relation to Roger, the new Smith dismantled the trappings of his namesake’s regime. GM’s standby strategies favoring cost cutting and large, low R&D vehicles were restored. Smaller cars, sad aberrations best left to foreigners, would be obtained from overseas from marques such as Isuzu and Fiat.

Current CEO Rick Wagoner continued Jack Smith’s agenda. Wagoner also peddled gas guzzlers, although this time to no avail, while completing the rogue Saturn’s dismemberment. If Jack Smith plunged in the knife, Rabid Rick twisted the blade.

Saturn really was “a different kind of company.” But resistance to change is a hallowed tradition within the GM family.

Peter Drucker, the father of management consulting, encountered GM’s insularity as early as 1946. His seminal study, Concept of the Corporation, extolled the automaker’s organizational successes, but advocated increased decentralization and empowerment of line workers. Drucker’s questioning of GM orthodoxy was considered blasphemy. Managers caught with the book were subject to termination. Then-Chairman Alfred Sloan was so incensed he later wrote his memoir specifically to rebut Drucker’s analysis.

Six decades later, little has changed. Success is perceived as an entitlement, deserved after decades of dominance. A not-invented-here mentality and superiority complex make meaningful change nearly impossible. Foreign rivals are still regarded with contempt, their tiny cars mocked as effete trinkets unsuitable to American tastes. Worker autonomy and equitable supplier relations, essential components of successful JIT lean production systems, are disdained for usurping management’s sacred duty of unilateral, top-down leadership.

From management’s perch above, the dismal sales of Aura, Outlook, and Astra confirm the fate of those who dare stray from the General’s path. Ironically, the dying legacy brands are adding to Opel West’s declining stature. Buick’s recent Chinese exploits and the baby boomer buzz of its Enclave crossover raise false hopes for the future of the Buick-Pontiac-GMC trifecta.

The upcoming redesigned 2010 Aura should deliver the knockout blow. GM intends to spoil that party by shackling the attractive Eurosedan with uninspired US-spec drivetrains. With their standalone stores and inadequate corporate support, Saturn’s dealers can expect to pay dearly for that mistake.

Sadly, the next Aura’s misfire will assure GM management of what it has believed all along: Americans don’t really want smaller cars. Caught within the quagmire of Michigan’s splendid isolation, Saturn never stood a chance.

Adrian Imonti
Adrian Imonti

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  • Ttilley Ttilley on Jun 11, 2008

    whatdoiknow1: Saturn could have been a success but the entrenched interest at GM; Buick, Chevy, Olds, Pontiac, GMC, and Cadillac had every reason to want ot see it fail. As I remember it, Saturn, and the purchased EDS, came about because Smith wanted to show the entrenched interests what's what. Which, of course, means I agree Smith had some idea of what was wrong, but it also means I think he lacked the willingness to take constructive action about it. The entrenched interests were his salaried employees, whom he was free to unentrench, if he was willing to take a risk on the reasonableness of his own diagnosis of GM's ailments.

  • Anuerysm_Boy Anuerysm_Boy on Jun 12, 2008

    To paraphrase our esteemed Commander in Chief: "GM, yer doin' a heck of a job!" Brilliant plan to kill any nuggets of goodness that you might possess. Like Saturn. And Saab. Yeah, just sit by idly and allow those brands to wither on the vine, but please do keep filling up your dealer lots with more of those oh-so-desirable and oh-so-profitable (thanks to very little R&D work needed, 'cause it's Same Shit, Different Day) SUVs. Good night, GM...