Some of General Motors' most influential dealers are hopping mad at marketing chief Ron Zarrella and want to meet with him this month.
According to dealers familiar with the situation, Zarrella angered members of the dealer policy committee at a May meeting. He told them that his job is to please shareholders, not dealers.
'That got the group really upset,' a dealer said. 'GM has had good rapport with the dealers, but Zarrella is driving that right down the toilet.'
Many dealers also are upset over various problems, including falling sales, advertising policies and a long-term plan to trim GM's dealer roster.
Dealers say John Peterson, GM's NADA committee chair and owner of Peterson Pontiac-GMC in Bloomington, Minn., wrote to Zarrella on June 26 requesting that Zarrella meet again with the policy committee as soon as possible.
Peterson would neither confirm nor deny the letter. But other dealers said Zarrella replied on July 3 that he will try to set up a meeting after he returns from vacation.
The dealer policy committee comprises the National Dealer Council chair or president and the National Automobile Dealers Association franchise committee representative of each GM make, including Saturn. Zarrella meets with the group three times a year.
At the committee's highly emotional May meeting, dealers were particularly distressed over their rankings in the J.D. Power and Associates Dealer Attitude Study.
The study measures the dealers' satisfaction with business practices of the factories, including marketing, parts and warranty, profitability and field representatives.
For the 1996 study, all GM makes, except Saturn, had scores below the industry average. Cadillac, GMC and Oldsmobile were near the bottom of the pack, finishing ahead of only Suzuki, which had the lowest score of the 34 makes surveyed.
GM also conducts its own dealer satisfaction studies twice a year. Those scores also are low.
Dealers cite several reasons for their dissatisfaction:
Zarrella's brand management, which went into operation in 1996. Brand managers help develop brand identities, set prices and incentives and establish ad campaigns, both nationally and regionally.
Some dealers complain that brand managers dictate regional advertising. Dealers believe they know best how to advertise in their markets.
Project 2000, which calls for reducing the dealer count in the next few years, enforcing consistent dualing patterns, moving stores to high-traffic areas and removing non-GM vehicles from GM showrooms.
While many dealers acknowledge that there are too many GM dealerships, some dealers fear they will be forced out under the program.
Elimination of dealer incentives, such as the 5 percent carryover allowance. Dealers formerly got money from GM to sell older product; that money now will go directly to consumers.
Strikes at GM plants, which curtailed new products, including the crucial Chevrolet Malibu and Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Declining sales. GM's market share slipped to 30.7 percent of the U.S. market through June 30, down from 32 percent a year ago. Sales dropped 6.1 percent in the first half of this year.
'Poor morale is a top level concern' among all GM dealers, one dealer said. 'We're not happy because we're not making money; conversely, if we're not making money, the company can't make money.'
Zarrella was on vacation until July 14 and unable to comment, GM spokesman Ed Lechtzin said.
Buick General Manager Bob Coletta acknowledges some tension between dealers and the factory.
'Relations are probably more contentious now than they've ever been,' Coletta said. 'My fear is that dealers don't understand that the public is telling them that they've got to change.'
Coletta said consumers want to be treated with more respect in the showroom, and they want better service when they bring vehicles in for warranty work.
'Change is not comfortable,' Coletta said. 'Dealers think we're changing to hurt them. We want them to be competitive.'
Another dealer agreed: 'The low satisfaction ratings are because of the change.'
Zarrella was named a GM vice president and group executive in charge of North American sales, service and marketing in December 1994. He came from Bausch & Lomb Corp. with no experience in the automotive industry. His biggest mission is to enhance the image of GM brands and differentiate the company's crowded product line.
Some dealers say his lack of automotive experience shows. But others like his style, saying he is frank and straightforward.
'The dealers believe that Zarrella is not paying attention to their views,' one dealer said, 'but what really is happening is that they don't like his answers.'
The dealer added: 'There is so much distrust between GM and its dealer body. But Ron (Zarrella) is very up-front about what he says, and I respect that.'