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Zarrella went to school at GM; he learned a lot

Ron Zarrella was impressive in his candor as he left General Motors last week.

The man who arrived in 1994 as marketing chief and left as president of GM North America said he had learned many lessons. He said he should have sought the views of dealers before making decisions that affected them. He learned that marketing alone couldn't turn General Motors around. He found out that until GM's vehicles were right, GM wasn't going to win back market share.

He confessed that GM should have shifted resources from cars to trucks sooner than it did. And he admitted that it is tough, if not impossible, for outsiders to come into the auto business and make a difference.

Give Zarrella an A for honesty. But one couldn't help but wonder: Does any company want its top executives to learn that much on the job?

Let the lessons learned by Zarrella instruct other companies seeking answers to their struggles. Sure, don't be afraid to change. But when your answers aren't rooted in what the business is all about - cars and trucks - your hopes for a turnaround are thin, indeed.

Zarrella is no fool. He came in as an outsider and fought for seven years to earn respect in this business. He surely saw the glow that instantly enveloped GM this summer when it hired a 69-year-old, Robert Lutz, to steer product development.

Yes, GM still has a long way to go. But the company does appear to have some real momentum. And much of it has come from Lutz, a new arrival at GM and one who has an instinct for what the automotive customer wants.

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