GM focuses on moving the metal
Company shuffles more sales, marketing execs
DETROIT -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra told analysts last week that GM is "riding a wave of new products" in North America as the company seeks to boost profitability and market share.
Charged with selling that fresh sheet metal are sales and marketing executive teams that are full of fresh faces after another round of executive turnover.
Last week, GM shuffled its U.S. sales operation again, moving Buick-GMC sales chief Brian Sweeney, 46, to the top sales post at Chevrolet, taking over for Don Johnson, 56, who is retiring. He'll be replaced by Duncan Aldred, 43, who has been running GM's British brand, Vauxhall. Both of them will report to new U.S. sales chief Steve Hill, 53, who was promoted to that job last month after Barra's elevation to CEO.
The churn atop GM's sales and marketing divisions in recent years has been a source of frustration and ridicule among dealers and others who work closely with GM on market strategies, such as marketing and advertising agency executives. Some dealers say the latest round comes just as GM's brands should be hitting their stride after the recent product infusion.
"The changes can be a distraction. It makes it hard for dealers to buy into the go-to-market strategy," says the owner of a Chevrolet dealership and a Buick-GMC store in the West who asked not to be named.
The dealer says that changes atop a brand's sales organization have a trickle-down effect on the field sales staff. Executive shuffling in Detroit can pose a distraction for GM zone managers, district managers and sales reps, who might worry about the ripple effects.
Sweeney will become Chevy's fifth U.S. sales chief in less than five years when he starts his job on March 1. Cadillac has had four sales chiefs during that period.
The flux also extends to GM's marketing ranks. Paul Edwards, 45, took over U.S. marketing for Chevy last month, appointed by the brand's global marketing chief, Tim Mahoney, who has been on the job for 10 months. Cadillac's global marketing boss, Uwe Ellinghaus, 44, arrived last month. The head of Chevy's ad agency, Commonwealth, left last month.
Compare that with rivals Ford, Toyota and Honda, which have had relatively little turnover in their sales and marketing leadership in recent years.
Brown: "These guys are in touch with dealers."
Some GM dealers say they don't mind a lot of turnover, as long as the executives who end up in the top jobs are receptive to dealer input.
"Some dealers get frustrated by all of the changes," says Henry Brown, owner of Henry Brown Buick-GMC in Gilbert, Ariz., and chairman of the Buick-GMC National Dealer Council. "But I think all of these recent moves show an awareness that GM wants a good working relationship. All of these guys are in touch with dealers and have an open line."
The turnover highlights the strategic importance of the sales and marketing functions at this stage in GM's recovery, says Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com.
GM's brands still suffer from outmoded perceptions that require marketing makeovers, especially on the coasts, Toprak says. And the sales forces are charged with pursuing market share gains without the sort of brand-harming discounting that hurt GM in the past.
While discussing GM's fourth-quarter financials last week, Barra echoed recent comments from her Chevy and Cadillac chief marketing officers, who both say that the images of those brands haven't caught up to the strength of their vehicle lineups.
"We need to continue to build our brands," she said. "I think we all know that there's a multiyear activity."
The stakes are especially high in North America, which has been GM's profit engine since the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. GM posted fourth-quarter pretax profit in North America of $1.88 billion, excluding onetime charges and gains. That accounted for virtually all of GM's $1.90 billion pretax profit.
GM's net income for the quarter rose 2 percent to $913 million. Its International Operations division, which includes several Asian markets, posted $208 million in pretax profit, but excluding China, those operations swung to a loss of about $200 million, from a $300 million profit a year earlier.
European losses shrank, but executives forecast a challenging year of weak pricing and restructuring costs.
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.