Editorial: Imagine a World Where Steve Rattner Decides That Ken Elias Should Become the Anointed King of GM

Ken Elias
by Ken Elias

That’s right, the CEO in charge of Government Motors. (Okay, don’t really ask me why I think I’m qualified; let’s just suspend belief for a few minutes shall we?) So what would I do? First, I’d insist on a new wardrobe for every person at every level. Gone are all the suits for the white-collar workers. Factory workers can’t wear jeans and t-shirts or whatever. Nope, everyone in the company now wears the GM uniform, kind of like the military. The new GM garb consists of coveralls in blue and white with a GM logo on the back, and each worker gets a name tag to pin on the front. Ranks are determined by stripes, bars and stars, just like the Army. As CEO, I get four stars on the shoulder epaulets. And, of course, there’d be a “dress uniform” for outside events.

Crazy? Perhaps. But everyone needs to get on board that the car business is like a war where the fight begins with winning the hearts and minds of fickle customers. It’s not just the folks at Dearborn down the road with whom we do battle, but it’s a worldwide onslaught of talented engineers, designers and workers from other car companies that want to sell their products to my customers. GM needs to defend the little bit of turf it’s got left and conquer new ground, especially with those folks who won’t even consider a GM product at any price.

Next, I’d fire all of the advertising agencies that work on the GMNA business. Frankly, you can’t really blame the agencies for the lousy messages of the past; it’s more the fault of GM’s executives for giving them little to work with to start and corporate blandness requirements second. A bad car still sucks no matter how good the advertising might be.

C’mon, what could anyone really come up with creative to say about the Aveo? And how chicken-shit was it for GM to not allow that hot woman driving the CTS with her fancy high heeled strappy shoes to say the truth that her CTS does turn her on?

So I’d look all around the country for the most creative, daring, and provocative ad agencies—and I’d pick one for each of the four remaining brands. Different car/truck lines need different messages. Of course, this begs the questions of exactly what are the four brands and what do they stand for? So I’m going to define them for everyone once and forever.

Chevrolet: the mass market brand for every man, woman, and teenager in America offering a full line of cars and trucks. Mass market means Walmart, Sears, and Penney’s shoppers.

Buick and GMC: the affordable luxury brand of cars and crossovers. More upscale than Chevrolet with better finishes, upgraded powertrains, and refined NVH characteristics. Think Nordstrom.

Cadillac: let’s get back to its roots and go for the “Standard of the World.” The most technologically advanced, powerful, and stylish vehicles. The brand has to become more of an adjective rather than a noun. Harrod’s in London for example. Everyone comes to see the merchandise, but few can afford to make a habit of shopping there. Yet, everyone buys something.

Third, I wouldn’t hire a single MBA except perhaps in the finance department to deal with Wall Street (’cause we’ll be back there soon enough). But finance will be a dead-end department for advancement to the top since a skilled finance guy can’t sell a car to a Grandma in Peoria if he tried. I want kids from the state schools, particularly engineers and designers. Guys and gals who got their hands dirty tinkering with cars or drawing them in high school.

But the biggest challenge still will be getting skeptical consumers out of their Toyotas and Hondas. There’s only one way—and that’s to put an American face (mine) in front of the public all the time telling them they’ve got to try a GM product.

And most importantly, tell them the truth. Let them hear from the CEO of GM about the particulars of each model in the line up. (OK, I won’t talk about how really awful that tin-can Aveo is, or that the Cobalt is a warmed-over Cavalier. But we’ve got some good stuff too that really does compete with the Japanese, so that’s what I’ll say.)

I’d personally go out and visit all my big suppliers and thank them for standing by GM even though we tried to screw every last nickel out of them in the past. That’s now history. Everyone needs to play nice and profit isn’t a dirty word. But we want their best efforts with higher quality controls than before even if it costs another nickel or two. Sure, they’ve got to be cost-competitive but we’re going to put a premium on quality, on-time delivery, and superior engineering. Just like the Japanese.

Finally, I’d get my dealers behind me. A car company can’t win without its dealers going whole-hog on the brand and the products. I’d put a stop to practices that make no sense, like loading the channel up with cars and then blowing them out at huge discounts. And I’d put more money into the regional dealer ad groups. Let the dealers tell the story to their buyers about the new GM. They’re a creative bunch with money at risk—if they win, we win. It’s just that simple.

So that’s my strategy for GM in the USA. Basic blocking and tackling, no miracles needed. I really want to pay the taxpayers back for the money we got, and I certainly want GM buyers to take pride in their vehicles. It’s time to get in the game of making and selling cars, and it’s a game GM can’t afford to lose.

Ken Elias
Ken Elias

More by Ken Elias

Join the conversation
2 of 18 comments
  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Jul 16, 2009

    Monty - you've got the right idea. Unique products (no overlap), GM dealers, and your product spread is the kind I'd suggest too. Get rid of the games at the dealer level and the false promises at the corporate level. Stop the UAW game playing (and whatever the management does to antagonize the UAW). If anyone is unhappy with their job or management or how the company is being run then that person is welcome to look for employment with other corporations. Striking might once have had a point when it earned worker's rights and safety rules but these days it looks infantile. We've got two people who have spent the summer sitting outside of my employer on the lawn with a big sign that says "Shame on " and "labor dispute". What a waste of time. None of the rest of us is publicly complaining - in fact we are thankful to have jobs and most of us are working hard to keep them.

  • Greenb1ood Greenb1ood on Jul 16, 2009

    Article isn't doing it for me. Finding a new way to buy a car that actually the experience positive is exactly the way to dominance. I have a feeling Penske will figure out how to create this new distribution model first since he has so much dealer experience. I like menno's concept, but I'll take it one step further: Each vehicle has a fixed price and a fixed payment plan period. The price tag would have 5 different monthly payment options based on your credit score and denoted by different color codes. You can either go online to process an application and receive your color, or use a kiosk at the GM dealer. GM could even strike deals with the reporting agencies to advertise by showing which GM color your score gets you on the self-printed credit reports. Then, Customer A with a Blue score walks into a GM dealer, directly to a red Corvette and sees the following: Green = $345/mo Blue = $388/mo Yellow = $399/mo Black = $419/mo Red = $445/mo Asks a salesperson for the keys, and is driving off the lot in 20 minutes after the paperwork is complete. No haggle. No shady deals. No asking the manager. Plus, it will show Americans the value of a good credit score because based on the recent mortgage crisis and bailouts we seem to have no concept whatsoever.

  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.