Sales of General Motors' profitable full-sized pickups are up, and the launch of the automaker's redesigned full-sized sport-utilities is ahead of schedule.
So why is Gary White, GM's vehicle line executive for full-sized trucks, thinking about Edward John Smith, the late captain of the ill-fated Titanic? Mainly because he doesn't want GM's seemingly unsinkable lineup of trucks to make him overconfident.
'I better watch out for icebergs now,' said White, 49.
White's challenge is to keep GM's full-sized pickups and sport-utilities on a steady course. Although GM's share of the overall truck market threatens to remain below 30 percent for the third year in a row, GM's share of the full-sized truck market is far healthier.
This year through October, GM controlled 43.1 percent of the full-sized pickup and sport-utility market, up from 40.8 percent for the same period in 1998.
The icebergs, in this case, are new vehicles coming from long-time competitor Ford Motor Co. and new entrants from Toyota Motor Corp.
White, a likable engineer who once considered a professional baseball career, took the helm of GM's full-sized truck programs in July. White had been a vehicle line executive at GM's North America Car Group, where he oversaw five vehicles: the Chevrolet Impala, Monte Carlo and Lumina, and the Buick Century and Regal.
He replaced Michael Grimaldi, who was promoted to general manager of North American sales, service and marketing.
MORE HEAVY LIFTING
At first glance, it looks like Grimaldi left White with little to do. Last year Grimaldi oversaw one of the most important GM vehicle launches in recent history, that of the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. This year, Grimaldi completed most of the rollout work for four redesigned full-sized sport-utilities, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL.
But White says there is more to come: 'I wouldn't say the heavy lifting is over.'
Early next year, White will oversee the rollout of GM's redesigned heavy-duty pickups, the one-ton versions of the Silverado and Sierra.
Also in 2000, he will launch two redesigned luxury sport-utilities, the Cadillac Escalade and the GMC Yukon Denali.
GM also is expected to introduce other new full-sized trucks in the coming years, such as a sport-utility with a pickup box. The automaker is racing to catch up with Ford, which will launch a full-sized sport-utility pickup, the F-150 SuperCrew, in 2000.
'That's the neat thing about coming over to trucks. We are still growing and segmenting the market,' White said.
White has had to switch gears since joining GM's North America Truck Group.
Things were simpler over at the car group. As vehicle line executive for 'hi-mid' cars, White had five car lines produced at two plants. New product launches came every two to three years.
But suddenly, White's responsibilities have more than doubled. He now has 10 truck lines produced at seven assembly plants. New product launches come every six months.
And while cutting models out of the car group's saturated lineup was a priority, the truck group is still adding full-sized truck models.
If White isn't keen on one of the new truck designs, he will likely speak his mind.
That's what he did when he became chief engineer of Oldsmobile in 1994. When asked to pick out his company car from the Oldsmobile lineup, he just couldn't find anything he liked.
'No wonder they can't attract buyers my age,' White remembers saying.
From then on, White became a key player in the updating of Oldsmobile's lineup.
With GM's overall share of the U.S. car and light-truck market likely to finish 1999 below 30 percent, its stable of full-sized trucks is a bright spot.
Through October, GM sold 15.4 percent more full-sized sport-utilities than it did during the same period in 1998; full-sized pickup sales for the 10 months have increased 15.2 percent. GM's two full-sized pickups combined outsold the Ford F series in each of the past three months.
Everyone is keeping an eye on what White does, from Wall Street analysts to journalists to GM board members.
Full-sized trucks are a top priority, and 'generate a tremendous amount of revenue for the company,' says White. 'It's kind of like, `Here are the family jewels. Don't drop them.' '