When Chevrolet was in its heyday during the 1970s, Bob Lund was the guy in charge.
Despite the oil crisis and rising sales of imported cars, Lund, as general manager of Chevrolet from 1975 to 1982, sold more than 21 million cars and trucks.
'Believe it or not,' the 79-year-old Lund boasted from his home in Phoenix, 'that's more than Chevrolet sold from 1912 to 1950. And it's more than the total vehicle population of 139 countries, including Russia and China.'
Before taking over Chevrolet, Lund had built a solid sales reputation at General Motors. In 1971, as John DeLorean's general sales manager, Lund pushed Chevrolet's annual sales over 3 million units - the first time any vehicle division had reached that figure.
In 1973, GM promoted Lund to general manager of Cadillac, and in 1974, GM gave him the top title at Chevrolet. By September 1977, Chevrolet was on pace to sell 4 million cars and trucks for the year. But 'then the wheels kind of came off,' Lund said.
'We ended up with 3.7 million, which was another all-time record, of course,' said Lund, who retired from GM in 1984.
Today Lund is a Cadillac dealer in Phoenix. He co-owns three stores with his son, John. Once again, Lund is a top seller; his flagship store is one of top three exclusive Cadillac dealerships in the country.
Lund talked with Staff Reporter Joe Miller about the roaring 1970s. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
What were the key things you did to get Chevrolet sales that high in the early 1970s?
I knew the market was there and the opportunity was there. And after all, we create the market. I just insisted we get it done.
(At the time) I could feel the pressure of not only the domestics, but the pressure of the Europeans and Japanese coming upon us. I felt if we established ourselves strongly enough, we could thwart the efforts of the competition.
What was your reaction to that increasing Japanese market share?
To some degree, we pooh-poohed it. We didn't think they'd ever last because their cars were not very well engineered and they weren't very attractive. But the thing that really got them going was the fact that they came over here and offered domestic dealers the opportunity to sell their cars. The dealer himself didn't have to make any investment. He already had a dealership building, showroom, facilities, salesmen, money.
People were scared the gasoline shortage would increase. So they were tempted to buy the foreign cars.
Do you feel that General Motors and the other domestics dropped the ball when that was occurring? Could they have done more?
I think we were so focused on what we were doing that we didn't think (the Japanese) would make much of a difference. I don't think we dropped the ball. I guess we could've done more, but we had our hands full with what we had.
In 1972, you became general manager of Cadillac. Again, that was right at the beginning of the energy crunch, but you were still able to increase sales. What were those years like?
I went from the biggest division to the smallest division in terms of volume. Yet I saw great potential for increased volume at Cadillac. I thought we could sell somewhere around 300,000. Well, we did. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Cadillac's 1973 retail sales were 285,709, a record at that time.) But we didn't do it without a lot of difficulties. We were then in the energy crunch, and the general public thought that buying a Cadillac was almost sinful. They called it a gas guzzler.
How did you change their minds?
We adopted a slogan called 'We believe.' We had posters printed. We all wore buttons. When a salesman was asked what was all this 'We believe' business, he was instructed how to answer the question. He pointed out that Cadillac was not a gasoline guzzler. It was an economical car that provided comfort and enjoyment despite its size.
We did something during the Chicago auto show that, I believe, helped us tremendously. We staged a run from Detroit to Chicago and equipped the cars with special locks for the gas tanks, filled them up with gas and put three to four journalists in each car. The cars got tremendous mileage, and the publicity we got for our efforts was unlimited.
Before you got to Cadillac, it had not had a dealer sales campaign in 15 years. What did you do?
Having come from a sales-oriented position, I felt we had to generate some enthusiasm for additional sales. So I established a sales campaign to increase our numbers and to get everyone excited about the opportunities. I pitted each dealer against his own objectives, and the people who met their objectives won a trip to Hawaii.
You know, Cadillac had a very staid and enjoyable life for a number of years. They didn't have to put on sales campaigns and energize the dealers to do such things. They were satisfied with what they had.
Before you became general manager at Cadillac and Chevrolet, that type of job typically went to an engineer. You were one of the first sales guys to take over a division.
I think the feeling was that we needed someone who could push the sales button.
What did GM achieve by moving salespeople into those upper positions?
They achieved primarily a different viewpoint. Prior to that time, engineering was king at all divisions and at all manufacturers. But (my promotion) proved that for a division to be successful, they needed people who knew how to sell them.
As we went along, many of the newly appointed people also came from the financial sector of General Motors. That was fine, but financial people are not geared to selling a high volume of cars. They're interested in the cash register ringing. Which I am, too, and all salespeople are. But you can't ring a cash register unless you make a sale.
Since the early 1980s, General Motors' market share has slipped dramatically. Any theories on what GM has to do to reclaim those glory years?
It's going to take a long time to regain what we've lost. The Japanese, particularly, have improved their products dramatically. And they're the force now. To get them to back away is a very difficult job, in fact an impossible job. I'll tell you, as far as what's going on today, the pie isn't any bigger. But the pieces are smaller because we have more people sitting around the table ready to eat the pie. That makes it very difficult.