Any way you slice it, the departure of general managers Ed Mertz from Buick and John Grettenberger from Cadillac was a sad day for General Motors and dealers.
Each executive did a great job, even when the corporation dealt him a losing hand in product. Gone are the days when a general manager has anything to do with creating cars.
During a meeting with both guys, I was reminded that not long ago, a general manager of a GM car division had tens of thousands of employees, including just about everything needed to create good or bad cars.
Today the general manager of a GM division has fewer than 500 employees, and his biggest job is to sell cars to the dealers. Brand managers do the vehicle marketing, and vehicle line executives, VLEs, do the cars. The general manager's role has changed dramatically.
Mertz said that all he really wants to do is create cars. Sadly, the head of Buick no longer has that responsibility. But he and Grettenberger have well served their divisions, their corporation and their dealers.
When a couple of great executives like Mertz and Grettenberger retire, you're tempted to talk about the end of an era, about how they don't make 'em like that anymore, and other cliches.
But it simply isn't true. Over the last decade, GM has been redefining the role of a divisional general manager. It's different. Still, there are general managers coming along who will be more than capable of carrying on the traditions.
Anyone who thinks that Bob Coletta, the new head of Buick, isn't a good old boy doesn't know Bob. He has been in the Buick sales organization so long, I bet he knows the name of every hunting dog of every dealer. He understands Buick.
And if you're looking for a bright star, don't look farther than Darwin Clark, the new head of Oldsmobile. When he found out that Indy racers are going to be using Oldsmobile engines, he must have been in seventh heaven.
He is one general manager who understands what he is supposed to do, and who happens to have a love for automobiles as well. It won't take him long to discover some classic Oldsmobiles for his garage.
The more things change: Grettenberger was a GM general manager for more than a dozen years. Mertz understood how to create cars better than any VLE. And some new general managers are going to keep the flame burning just fine.
Now all they all need are some great products.