Bill Hoglund, former Pontiac and Saturn chief, dies at 79

Bill Hoglund announces the closing of 11 GM plants in 1986.
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Bill Hoglund, a retired executive and CFO of General Motors, and close confidant of former Chairman and CEO Jack Smith, died on Sunday, June 9, 2014, in Harbor Springs, Mich. He was 79.

The cause of death was complications from a blood clot, according to Dick Schiller, director of the Schiller Funeral Home in Harbor Springs, Mich.

Hoglund, who resigned from GM in 1994 as executive vice president for corporate affairs, also ran Pontiac, Saturn, the former Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group and the Automotive Components Group during a 36-year career with the automaker.

A tall, friendly, well regarded and independent executive, Hoglund revived Pontiac in the early 1980s and coined the brand's tag line, “We build excitement.”

He once used an office chair that had served as a red and gray bucket seat in the 1984 Pontiac Fiero Indy pace car. And Hoglund and his wife Bev often hosted parties for the automotive press in their suburban Detroit home that would last into the night.

“Mr. Hoglund commanded the respect of all who worked with him,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “His legacy was that of a gifted leader known for his integrity, decency and advocacy for the customer. He will be deeply missed by the GM family.”

William Elis Hoglund was born on Aug. 22, 1934, in Stockholm and graduated from Princeton University in 1956 and the University of Michigan in 1958.

Following several summer assignments with GM, he joined the company in 1958 in the accounting department at the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac division.

Pontiac comeback

After holding various finance roles at the Pontiac division and GM treasurer's office in New York, Hoglund was named a GM vice president and general manager of Pontiac in 1980.

While comptroller of Pontiac in the early 1970s, Hoglund endeared himself to junior staff members at the division by regularly soliciting ideas and holding open meetings in the Pontiac cafeteria. The gatherings were dubbed "love-ins" by underlings.

He oversaw the transformation of Pontiac into a thriving GM division by improving labor-management relations, embracing teamwork on the plant floor, and halting the brand's longtime practice of producing lackluster clones of Chevrolet cars.

Hoglund championed one of GM's biggest hits and, later, biggest disappointments of the 1980s -- the Pontiac Fiero. The two-seat, mid-engined, sporty "commuter car" proved popular at first during a period of rising gasoline prices.

It was Hoglund who recommended that workers at a plant in Pontiac, Mich., where the car was to be assembled, name the car and they came up with Fiero -- "proud" in Italian, and "wild" or "fierce" in Spanish.

But GM eventually dropped the Fiero because of lackluster sales prompted, in part, by safety concerns and engine fires, mostly in 1984 models, as well as reliability and performance issues. 

Hoglund was named group executive in charge of GM's central office operating staffs group in 1984.

Early Saturn boss

In February 1985, he was named president of GM's new Saturn Corp. subsidiary after the death of 54-year-old Joseph Sanchez, who had died in January, only two weeks after being named president of the new company.

A year later, Hoglund was named group executive in charge of the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group.

In 1988, GM promoted him to executive vice president in charge of the Automotive Components Group, Power Products & Defense, Service Parts Operation, finance, and the corporate affairs and staff support group.

Hoglund was a noted maverick who successfully transitioned from GM's finance staff to key operations and vehicle divisions.

Hoglund was considered a candidate to become GM chairman when Roger Smith retired in 1990, but Robert Stempel was chosen. Stempel insisted that his close friend Lloyd Reuss replace him as president, and Hoglund lost out on another top job.

"Bill Hoglund bears the distinction of having started his career in finance and later making a transition to operations," Wall Street analyst Maryann Keller wrote in her 1989 book, Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors. "He is popular inside the company and with the dealers, although many insiders believe he's too outspoken and controversial."

Hoglund's brother and father had also served as GM vice presidents.

"I don't like to dwell on the past, but if there is one thing I did wrong in my career, it was that I tended to say things without worrying how the receiver of the news would accept it," Hoglund told the Chicago Tribune in a late 1994 interview. "I didn't ingratiate myself to all of my bosses."

Candid remarks

According to the book The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, GM Chairman Roger Smith once wondered aloud at a meeting why GM was losing money. Hoglund promptly responded one reason was because it had replaced the inexpensive-to-build Chevrolet Celebrity with the costly-to-produce Lumina.

Hoglund, in front of fellow executives steeped in the GM practice of never casting blame at one's own feet, and who had approved the more expensive Lumina project, said the company was losing $1,800 on every car it built.

In Nov. 1992, when Jack Smith became CEO of GM, replacing Stempel, who had been ousted as part of a sweeping management shakeup, Hoglund was named executive vice president in charge of the new corporate affairs and staff support group. Hoglund also was named to the GM board.

Jack Smith often referred to Hoglund as his “right-hand man” early in his tenure as CEO.

Hoglund had hoped to spend his last five years at GM in an important operating role. But when the company created a powerful new post -- head of North American Operations -- and gave the job to Rick Wagoner, who later became CEO, Hoglund decided to retire.

"It was obvious in the late '80s and early '90s that something was not right but that I wasn't going to play a significant role in changing it," Hoglund told The Chicago Tribune in the 1994 interview. "I was named head of the components and defense groups, which wasn't mainstream. When you work for an auto company but aren't asked to play a role on the auto side, there's little sense to stick around."

Survivors include his wife, Bev, two daughters and a son. A daughter preceded him in death.

A reception celebrating Bill Hoglund's life will be held at Birchwood Farms Golf and Country Club, in Harbor Springs, Mich., on Aug. 10, 2014, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. ET. A memorial service will be held in Naples, Fla., in the fall.

Kathleen Burke and David Phillips contributed to this report.

7 Bill Hoglund quotes


"What the hell did we do in the '70s to get [Pontiac] all screwed up?"

-- February 1981

"I think we'll be able to look back at that critical juncture in our history, that awful year in 1992, and say that was the year that we got back on the right track."

-- January 1993

"In July of 1984, when I left Pontiac, the Grand Prix was done. You know when it came out? January of 1989. Why? Because our product plan was always $1 billion or $2 billion richer than we could afford. So we'd work like hell for 18 months, and then say 'Hey, we better slow up.'"

-- May 1993

"For too long, we've had a history of adversarial relations with the government. It's an obsolete throwback to a different time with such absurdities; it's fatal to our future."

-- October 1993, on Detroit 3 cooperation with the U.S. government

"Too bad. It's a helluva driving van. It's the wrong-shaped dog meat, we guess."

-- November 1993, on the lack of sales of the pointy-nosed Oldsmobile Silhouette and its sister minivans

"I realize this is an international exposition. But it's nice from a technical standpoint to believe that we (Big 3 engineers) know how to compete eyeball to eyeball. We've been struggling to find out how good we are and how bad we are. And I really do think that we're on the brink of finding ourselves again."

-- March 1994 speech to SAE

"When you look at the last two years, the stuff that's come out has been pretty damn good. We need to make sure that we don't have any more Caprices, that everything's a Camaro, everything's an S/T truck, everything's a Saturn, everything's a Seville STS, and that the cars that we come out with hit the markets for which they're targeted and are executed flawlessly. We would love to push the living hell out of our manufacturing capacity, but you only do that by having the greatest product."

-- November 1993

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com. -- Follow Vince on Twitter


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