Oldsmobile rocked under feisty John Rock
The brash and feisty Rock, Oldsmobile's general manager from April 1992 to October 1996, was born in Groton, S.D., in 1936. He worked in his father's Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership and joined General Motors in 1960 as a Buick manager trainee.
"He was a lot of fun, and he was very straightforward," said Gus Buenz, director of Oldsmobile communications from 1987 to 2003. "He would make a point with little stories and analogies. He was just brilliant at that."
Here are a few examples:
Rock had just been transferred to Oldsmobile and was looking for a house in the Lansing, Mich., area, where Oldsmobile was based. He was commuting from the Detroit area to Lansing and meeting Fridays with the Oldsmobile staff, Buenz said.
In one of his first meetings with the Oldsmobile team, Rock mentioned he was looking for a house.
Buenz said Rock told the staff: "Obviously, I can afford a pretty nice house. I've been looking in a lot of garages, and I don't see a lot of Oldsmobiles. I just want to tell you, folks, you've got to be a hero in your hometown before you can be a hero anywhere else."
Six months after Rock became general manager, he and Oldsmobile were shaken by a Washington Post story that said, because of poor sales, GM's directors were seriously considering killing the brand.
Rock "did a teleconference to all our dealers and GM offices the afternoon following the story," Buenz said. "We were having lunch prior to that, and Rock said, 'You know, I think I'll just get up there and tell them, you're looking at one pissed-off cowboy.' "
Everybody laughed and "we didn't think anything about it," said Buenz. But to everyone's surprise, "that is exactly how he opened the teleconference."
Rock said, "You know, you are looking at one pissed-off cowboy because somebody is trying to shoot my horse, and I don't know who."
In a 2006 Motor Trend interview, Rock was asked whether he had known Oldsmobile was headed for extinction.
"When (Ron) Zarrella called me in September 1996, he said, 'John, you know I just don't see anything at Oldsmobile that makes me comfortable.'
"I said: 'Well, everything I have in my life comes from General Motors. My father was a dealer for 40 years. It's the only job I ever had. The one thing I'm not going to do is get into a pissing contest with my boss. And the next thing I'm not going to do is get ornery and sit in the corner and count paper clips for a couple of years.'
"I said, 'If you want my ass out of here, I'd gladly do that.' So we shook hands and probably were the friendliest we ever were."
Rock directed the creation of the Oldsmobile Centennial Plan. It was an effort to reinvent the brand's image and much of the product line by 1997, Oldsmobile's centennial year. The plan also adopted many of Saturn's business practices and customer care policies.
Under consideration in 1993 was whether Oldsmobile should drop its longtime ad agency, Leo Burnett USA, and go in a different direction. Burnett and its predecessor had had the account since 1934.
Contacted by this reporter on the day in December 2000 when GM announced it was discontinuing the Oldsmobile brand, Rock said he had one regret: that he didn't fire the Burnett agency in 1993. Said Rock, speaking from his ranch in South Dakota: "I had them in the target and let them off the hook. It is the biggest mistake I ever made. I'm not mad, I'm sad."
John Rock died in 2007. He was 71.