Maybe it's typical of executives with long careers that they begin to wonder if anyone might ever remember them when they're gone.
Richard "Skip" LeFauve, who died Jan. 25 at 68 from complications with recent heart surgery, had such thoughts.
His 42-year career at General Motors took the former Navy pilot from the engineering department of the old Packard Electric Division in Warren, Ohio, through the vehicle production side, where he eventually ran the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group factories in the 1980s. He became president and CEO of Saturn Corp. as that $4 billion venture came into being. He took over global small-car operations for GM, served on the Global Strategy Board, and then oversaw global "leadership development."
But some 35 years into the career, LeFauve had to think long and hard about his last assignment in 1997.
"You're not going to live forever," he finally told himself after GM offered the assignment a fourth time. Taking over the automaker's global employee training program and starting General Motors University, he finally concluded, might give him a chance to create something that lasted beyond him.
The die cast
Yet, in the minds of many around the auto industry, LeFauve's legacy was already cast in stone as the man who defined the "different kind of car company."
Coming out of GM's traditional and sometimes moribund big-car manufacturing environment of 1986, LeFauve was like others who gravitated toward the Spring Hill, Tenn., Saturn project. He wanted the chance to try new ideas in the factory, new approaches to managing people and new methods of harmonizing the discordant interests of workers, managers, shareholders, suppliers, retailers and consumers.
"He was a deep thinker," recalls Tom Shaver, Saturn's director of consumer marketing in the project's early days, and now senior partner at J.D. Power & Associates. "He was a charismatic people person who really believed that there were different ways to do things in the industry."
LeFauve seemed to revel in challenging the old rules of the game. UAW personnel took part in selecting parts suppliers and retailers. Daily decisions were reached not through executive action, but through "consensus management." Decisions at Saturn had to be either a unanimous yes or a unanimous no. Disagreement had to be verbalized and resolved.
A boardroom of some 30 people once spent part of a morning sifting through an issue in order to reach a decision. As soon as LeFauve agreed with the group and the matter was nearly closed, a junior female staffer at the opposite end of the table raised an objection. LeFauve listened to her dissenting view, drawing her out for several minutes, then reopened the debate. Within 20 minutes, LeFauve and everyone else in the room had reversed themselves to the opposite decision.
"He created an atmosphere where you had to really think about what you were doing," one long-term Saturn employee recalls. "It made you feel like you were a part of things."
Seeing it differently
LeFauve told his managers that the correct structure for Saturn, or any organization, was an upside-down triangle. The CEO resided at the bottom. The bulk of the workforce -- the people who created the product or the service - should be perceived as the top of the corporation, with the highest priorities.
Such out-of-the-box thinking could make life challenging for the fledgling car company. Under LeFauve's direction, Saturn started with a skeletal parts inventory system -- a philosophical move intended to force suppliers to scrutinize every piece they shipped Saturn in hopes of assuring quality. "No safety net," LeFauve described it.
But there was a downside. The extremely lean inventory meant vehicle production halted almost every time one of Saturn's new suppliers hiccuped. Dealers sat waiting for cars as LeFauve's factory insisted things be done correctly in order to protect Saturn's new brand name.
Nor was the approach foolproof. In the first year of production, as consumers and retailers clamored for cars, LeFauve received the bad news that 1,836 of the first Saturns out the door contained the wrong anti-freeze formula.
What defines his legacy today may have been LeFauve's decision about that first-year recall.
Rather than making repairs, LeFauve ordered all 1,836 cars to be reclaimed and crushed. Saturn then handed their owners the keys to new cars.
Newspapers and TV reports carried the news of a car company that cared enough about its customers to give cars away free. Suddenly, the auto industry was throwing around words like "integrity" and "fairness." A new era of customer service seemed to have dawned in the rough and tumble car business in which buyers got the idea they might be entitled to something more.
The recalled Saturns probably could have been repaired, LeFauve later admitted. But what message do you want to send your customer, he asked, and what message did Saturn want to send to the world?
Today, a dozen years later, LeFauve's Saturn organization looks noticeably different. Decision-making is now often conducted higher in the GM organization, and Saturn itself operates more like a standard GM division with traditional GM practices.
But what hasn't changed is the consumer attitude LeFauve helped create in the industry -- the idea that sometimes in business the unexpected is what makes the most enduring impression.