Akerson revamps marketing
He'll direct new global bosses at Cadillac, Chevy
Ferguson: Was chief lobbyist
DETROIT -- General Motors is revamping its marketing structure by appointing two executives to run the retail operations of Chevrolet and Cadillac worldwide rather than filling the role of recently dismissed global marketing head Joel Ewanick.
The Chevy and Cadillac bosses will report directly to CEO Dan Akerson, who is taking greater control over the go-global strategies he's pushing for his two biggest brands.
The first step in the process happened last week, when GM introduced the new Cadillac head: Bob Ferguson, 53, a former AT&T executive and GM lobbyist.
His resume includes a stint running a 10,000-employee commercial telecom unit, but he has no consumer marketing experience. He entered the auto industry in 2010 when former CEO Ed Whitacre hired him to be GM's chief global lobbyist.
Akerson is conducting a national search for a new Chevy chief, say two people familiar with the company's plans. He also will consider in-house candidates, the sources said.
The overhaul is Akerson's most significant structural move yet to turn Chevy and Cadillac into stronger global players by handing responsibility for the growth of each brand to one executive. The unusual setup of having brand chiefs -- principally in charge of sales and marketing -- report directly to the CEO will give Akerson more control over their direction.
"He must really want to lead the charge of growing those brands," says Bill Lovejoy, a consultant who was GM's vice president of marketing, sales and service for North America from 2000 to 2002. "But is it the best use of the CEO's time to dive into those nitty-gritty brand issues? And does he have the expertise in automotive sales and marketing to guide that process?"
Ferguson's position, vice president of global Cadillac, "gives accountability for growth of the Cadillac brand to one person: marketing, sales, service -- the whole retail experience," a GM spokesman said.
The spokesman declined to comment on whether GM would create an equivalent Chevy post, but one of the sources said GM likely will name a global Chevrolet chief after Jan. 1.
Chris Perry, 52, is Chevy's current global head of marketing, but he doesn't oversee sales or service. He could be a candidate for the broader role, the sources said.
Last week's move stopped short of creating a separate Cadillac division with profit-and-loss responsibility, a structure Akerson had considered for both Cadillac and Chevy, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Still, it's a departure for GM. The leaders of most GM brands worldwide answer to interim global marketing chief Alan Batey, who reports to Akerson. Brand chiefs at most automakers typically answer to a marketing executive or regional president under the CEO.
Batey, 49, was assigned the interim post in July, after GM dismissed Ewanick for failing to disclose properly the details of a sponsorship deal with the British soccer club Manchester United, sources have said.
GM's new setup might most closely resemble the structure under Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose direct reports include the heads of Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge and other brands. Those executives, however, are responsible for their units' bottom lines.
Mike Jackson, a former GM vice president of marketing who now runs an advertising agency in Detroit, says elevating the heads of Chevy and Cadillac makes sense -- especially given the heavy lifting ahead for Cadillac in key markets such as Europe.
"I think it's the right move for the right time to have that accountability," Jackson said, although he thinks profit-and-loss responsibility would add clout to the position. He said global brand chiefs can tamp down regional infighting over budgets and creative direction.
Ferguson's appointment has been criticized by some dealers and industry insiders as an example of Akerson's penchant for picking execs with relatively little automotive experience for jobs that stray from their core areas of expertise -- lobbying, in Ferguson's case.
Since Akerson became CEO in September 2010, he has installed telecom or technology veterans to lead GM's human resources, OnStar, infotainment and information technology units. GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, a former Wall Street analyst with no previous operational experience, now oversees purchasing, product planning, GM Europe and other areas.
"I've heard Dan say, 'We don't always need to look at people who've been in the car business,'" a former GM executive said. "He thinks outsiders bring a fresh perspective."
Ferguson brings a colorful if unconventional background to his new job. He is the son of Christian missionaries and went to junior high school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and to high school in Singapore. In the 1980s he worked for eight years as a TV reporter in Springfield, Mo.
He eventually became a lobbyist at a telecom company that would later be absorbed into AT&T, where he spent more than a decade. While there, he was CEO of a 10,000-employee division with $5 billion in annual revenue that sold Internet and long-distance services to business customers.
Before being hired by Whitacre as head of public policy in January 2010, Ferguson was a strategist at a consulting firm, where he counseled the president of the International Olympic Committee leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Boosting sales in China will be critical to Cadillac's global ambitions.
Ferguson, an avid golfer and amateur photographer, acknowledged that he might not have the prototypical resume to lead Cadillac. But he said sales experience from his AT&T days and the regulatory savvy and people skills he deployed as a lobbyist will serve him well.
"Anyone who sees this as GM bringing their political guy over to run Cadillac would not be very conversant on my background," he said. "My career has prepared me well for this opportunity."
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