DETROIT — Duncan Aldred is getting a crash course in U.S. geography.
Before moving to Detroit in January for his new job as head of Buick-GMC, the Briton and former Vauxhall executive’s U.S. travel log was nearly blank. He had visited only New York City and General Motors’ headquarters here.
Lately Aldred has been visiting Buick-GMC dealers in Mississippi, Texas, New York and elsewhere. He’s hearing them riff about Buick’s latest ad campaign and gripe about why the factory can’t get them more GMC Yukon Denalis.
“As I was meeting these dealers I thought, ‘This is great. I wanted to be part of the society here, part of the culture,’” Aldred said in an interview last month. He feels at home in the “grittiness” of Detroit, which reminds him of his native northwest England.
But Aldred doesn’t need anyone to point out on a map where to take the two brands, which account for nearly a quarter of GM’s U.S. sales.
On shaking Buick’s old-folks image: “We need to take it by the scruff of the neck and just tell people that it’s not what they think it is,” Aldred said.
On how to take resurgent GMC to the next level: “I think we can push this brand and the Denali line even higher. I see its future as really exciting in an Audi-esque kind of way.”
The lanky 43-year-old has been given the chance to think big. Aldred oversees both sales and marketing for Buick-GMC, the first time since 2009 that those roles are combined under one brand chief.
GM North America President Alan Batey made changes at Buick-GMC and Chevrolet after he took the job in January, as a way to clarify reporting lines and create accountability. Former Buick-GMC sales chief Brian Sweeney moved to Chevy at the same time, where he also oversees both sales and marketing.
As Vauxhall managing director from 2010 to 2013, Aldred helped to reverse years of sliding retail market share. The brand’s overall United Kingdom market share dipped to 11.4 percent last year, from 12.2 percent in 2010, according to IHS Automotive, as he de-emphasized less profitable sales to rental companies.
Aldred is “happy to push boundaries” to achieve aggressive sales goals, says Jon Taylor, owner of seven Vauxhall dealerships in the London area.
As car sales were tanking amid Europe’s worsening recession around 2011, Aldred rolled out two marketing plays to spark sales. One was 0 percent financing for 60 months with no money down on any model, a rare offer in the United Kingdom at the time, Taylor says. The other was a warranty of 10 years/100,000 miles.
“When we were all struggling to move product, those two clever marketing initiatives gave us a huge boost,” Taylor says.
Batey says Aldred’s global experience — he also has worked in Germany and Hungary — brings “new ideas and new thinking” to the Buick-GMC job. “He had success in a very competitive, very sophisticated market in the U.K.,” Batey says.
Batey also notes the similarities between Opel/Vauxhall and Buick, regional brands that increasingly share underpinnings and designs as GM moves toward global vehicle architectures. The Buick Regal sedan is essentially a rebadged Opel/Vauxhall Insignia sedan, for example.
In 2013, former GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky summoned Aldred to Germany to assist with his turnaround effort at Opel. Aldred ran sales and marketing as the troubled European unit notched its first market share increase in 14 years.
Among Aldred’s top priorities at Buick-GMC is boosting Buick volumes, especially nameplates that have struggled lately, such as the Regal sedan.
“What we can’t have at Buick is 10 vehicles all selling a few thousand units each,” Aldred says. “I’ve seen that. It doesn’t work.”
He’s committed to a consistent marketing strategy that will rehabilitate Buick’s reputation. He likes a recent commercial — done before he arrived — that uses old folks to hit back at consumer perceptions. But he’s not afraid to use “shocking and polarizing” messaging to attack the recalcitrant brand image.
“It’s hard to be really brave and to hit messages like that head on,” he said. “We’re going to stick with it.”
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com