GM exec led Saturn, built excitement at Pontiac

Bill Hoglund: Candid and charismatic

GM exec led Saturn, built excitement at Pontiac

Bill Hoglund held several key executive positions during periods of great upheaval at General Motors.
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Bill Hoglund, who died on June 8 at age 79, was a new kind of General Motors executive.

Though he grew up steeped in the company's culture -- his father and older brother were GM vice presidents -- Bill Hoglund was himself a culture buster.

He was sometimes dangerously outspoken, and he liked to try new things.

He held several key executive positions during periods of great upheaval at GM. Late in his 36-year career -- he retired in 1994 -- Hoglund was a close confidant of CEO Jack Smith. But Hoglund's own ambitions to be CEO were thwarted.

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 cafeteria. The gatherings were dubbed "love-ins" by underlings.

Indeed, Pontiac is where he made his mark. As head of the division beginning in 1980, he helped transform Pontiac into a thriving unit 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.

Tall and friendly, Hoglund revived Pontiac in the early 1980s and coined the brand's tag line: "We build excitement."

He could also create excitement with his comments.

In February 1981 he said in an interview: "What the hell did we do in the '70s to get [Pontiac] all screwed up?"

Hoglund was flamboyant. 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 he and his wife often hosted parties for the automotive press in their suburban Detroit home that would last into the night.

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

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.

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 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 so Hoglund lost out on another top job.

He retired from GM in 1994 as executive vice president for corporate affairs.

Hoglund's frankness sometimes put him on the outs with topmost management

"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."

In one oft-repeated story, GM Chairman Roger Smith once wondered aloud at a meeting why GM was losing money. Hoglund promptly responded that one reason was because it had replaced the inexpensive-to-build Chevrolet Celebrity with the costly-to-produce Lumina.

In front of fellow executives who had approved the more expensive Lumina project, Hoglund said the company was losing $1,800 on every car it built.

In November 1992, 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. He also was named to the GM board.

Smith often referred to Hoglund as his "right-hand man."

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 future CEO Rick Wagoner, 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 said 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."

Kathleen Burke and David Phillips contributed to this report.

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


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